I kept my eyes cast downward as I knelt in the mud in line with the other girls from my village who’d come of age this year. The unrelenting rain had already soaked through my cloak, chilling me to my core. It would take at least an hour to scrub all of this damned mud from my already stained dress.
I glanced sideways at the two soldiers leisurely working their way down the line of kneeling women. At their pace, I’d be kneeling here for another thirty minutes at the least. Listening to the sounds around me, staring blankly at the puddle before me, I waited. I listened to the faint squashing of boots on the sodden ground, the soft whispers of the villagers gathered across the road as they watched us, and the teeth chattering of the girls at my sides.
The king’s men only came to our village once per year. It was always the same routine. This year was different for me, as I was now a participant instead of an underage observer. Every girl in the village who had reached the age of eighteen was expected to fall in line to be tested by the ancient ring of the Fae. The males were tested separately. Anyone who resisted, tried to flee, or was absent from the mandatory test would be arrested immediately, or worse.
The ring was an old relic, said to glow when placed upon the finger of a Fae. It was all such a waste of time. I could be hunting today, or working on the blanket I’d been crocheting with the yarn I’d bought last week. But I was stuck here, knee deep in the freezing mud, surrounded by whimpering females.
I wanted to snap at the sobbing girls and tell them to suck it up and stop their crying. No one had failed the test in over fifteen years. To think that they’d find what they were looking for in this miserable, piss poor village was ridiculous. The Fae were all gone. Extinct. The king had seen to that.
The Fae people, born with magic in their veins and the gift of eternal youth, were all slaughtered by the king’s army many, many years ago. The only thing that existed of them now were stories. I was glad they were gone. The stories whispered over hearths and fire pits were nothing short of spine chilling. I still had nightmares about them.
The Fae were cruel, wicked creatures. Cunning, self serving, and evil. They’d skin a human alive just for sport, if their paths were ever to cross. The world was far better off without them in it for all I cared. There were no more Fae. There was no more magic. At least, not the kind of the Fae were said to wield. There were still other creatures that roamed the world, some just as horrible as the Fae, but the king was seeing to that matter as well. Soon, there would be no magical beings left. Good riddance.
To me, the only things that were left to truly fear, were much more practical. The never ending hunger of our people, the poverty that touched almost every realm of this land, and the blister fever that had already taken so many of us, including my mother, three years ago. Those were the real problems that needed attention. And yet the King and his men wasted their time on this. I scowled at the ground.
“Brenya Blackwell?” A rough, male voice boomed over the spattering of the rain. I steeled myself for whatever was to come next.
“Here.” I said smoothly.
I kept my head lowered, eyes on the muddy ground as the man approached. A pair of shiny, black boots came into view. Envy uncoiled in my gut and I bit the inside of my cheek. I could fetch a weeks worth of food for boots like those.
“Stand up.” He ordered.
I rose slowly, my legs tingling and numb from kneeling for so long, and kept my eyes lowered. Any sign of disrespect, any hint of disobedience would have rewarded me with a black eye. My braided hair fell forward, spilling over my shoulder, as I stood. Rain dripped from the end of the long, dark braid, even with the hooded cloak covering my head.
“Hold out your hand, girl.” The man demanded.
I lifted my hand, calloused and flecked with mud. I dared a glance at the man’s face as he reached for me. The helmet he wore hid most of his face, but it did not cover the brutal, silver scar that marred his leathery cheek. I stared a bit too long, and as my eyes slid to his, I felt my throat bob. His beady, brown eyes beheld no kindness as he glared at me. I broke out eye contact.
“See anything you like? I could put those pretty lips of yours to good use.” He sneered.
I did not answer. I bit down on my tongue to keep myself from snapping back with a remark likely to result in being whipped. I stared at my leather shoes. The man gripped my hand roughly and tugged me forward, bringing me closer to his foul stench of cigar smoke and body odor. “I asked you a question.” He hissed.
I gritted my teeth. I imagined shoving the heel of my palm up into his nose and slamming my knee into his groin. Then he would be the one kneeling and whimpering in the icy mud.
“That is enough.” The second man said from somewhere to my left. I hadn’t even noticed him.
I glanced up, curious to see the face of the stealthy soldier. My jaw went a bit slack as my eyes took him in. I’d never seen such a beautiful male in all my life.
He exuded power and authority. He was taller than an average man, towering above me and the foul captain. His broad shoulders matched his strong jawline and cheekbones. I could tell, even through his clothing and armor, that he was packed with muscle. His skin was a flawless, golden tan and despite the many brawls I was sure he’d been in, his nose was straight.
The thick fullness of his lower lip and curved, bow shaped upper lip had me imagining things that caused my cheeks to heat. His jawline and chin were covered in dark stubble. He wore a hood, but I could tell that his hair was dark. It fell over his forehead, rain dripping from the tips, nearly to his eyes.
And, oh gods, his eyes...
His eyes were like shimmering oceans, deep, with fierce currents just beneath the blue surface. Eyes so blue that the sky itself would be envious. The color, in contrast to his dark hair, was striking. And even in the dim lighting of clouds and rain, they sparkled like star filled skies. They seemed to have endless depths. I felt as though I might fall into those depths, never able to climb out again, if I stared too long. His breathtaking eyes were framed by thick lashes, his brows full and angled.
I only allowed myself to look at him for a few short moments before I turned my attention back to my shoes. His gaze had been bored, but I thought I noticed a spark of interest behind his eyes the moment before I’d broken our stare. Probably because he’d noticed my own, strangely colored eyes. I had one green, and one blue. People always gawked at them.
“You do not give orders to your Captain, boy.” The vulgar man growled. He tugged my right hand closer and lifted the ancient ring to my middle finger.
I’d seen the ring before, but always from a distance. Never so close up. I’d always thought it was a piece of junk, but upon closer examination, it was quite lovely. The aged, sterling silver band was marred and flecked with scars, but the red rubies embedded along its edges gleamed at me as though they were brand new. The impressively sized diamond in its center gleamed at me and I felt my heart skip a beat.
The man slid it roughly onto my middle finger.
And then the impossible happened.
The rubies began to glow crimson against my pale flesh, like fresh blood on snow. The diamond in the center lit up in a brilliant flash, blinding me for a moment, before it dulled and glowed subtly. I felt the metal warming around my frozen finger and it began to pulsate. I gasped at the sensation.
A moment of stunned silence was followed by an eruption of murmuring and cries from the girls behind me and from the villagers across the street. My wide eyes snapped up to meet the captains. His expression mirrored mine as he gaped at me a moment.
“No! I’m human, I swear!”
Faster than I could counter, he backhanded me across the face. He did not hold back for the fact that I was a woman. My head snapped to the side, the skin on my cheek stinging and burning with the impact of his hand, and I stumbled backward.
“Liar!” He bellowed.
I straightened, cupping a palm to my stinging cheek as I slid my horrified eyes to the handsome, blue eyed soldier. His own eyes burned into mine, his lips slightly parted. An expression mixed between anguish and wonder was painted across his features.
The captain struck again. I was too stunned to react. This time he slapped me harder. I fell to the ground, mud and water splashing and spraying around me. I realized he’d split my lower lip open when I noticed the coppery tang of blood on my tongue. He took a step toward me, as if to kick me in the ribs.
“Filthy, Fae bitch!” He cursed me.
Perhaps it was the sound of my father’s agonized voice, crying out my name from across the street. Perhaps it was the look of terror on my tear and rain soaked face. Whatever it was that made him have mercy on me, the beautiful soldier stepped in the Captain's path and stopped him.
“Our orders are to bring the Fae to the king alive. I do not recall him ordering us to beat them senseless first.” He growled.
There was a pause, followed by a growl from the Captain.
“Bind the bitch and put her on a horse. We’re leaving.” He ordered, his murderous eyes still digging into me.
I stared at the ring that was still snugly on my finger, now caked in mud as well as the rest of me. The rubies remained bright and luminous.
I was dreaming. I had to be dreaming. The Fae were all dead. My parents were human. I had no powers, no Fae features, no pointed ears or elongated canines. I couldn’t be... couldn’t be...
I grasped the ring and pulled, trying to rid myself of the disgusting thing. It would not budge and I cried out at the pain as I continue to yank on it. Still, it did not move. Something warm and solid slid underneath me and I was lifted from the cool ground. I was only vaguely aware that it was actually the arms of the blue eyed soldier as my body went into shock.
There were no sounds. No pelting of the rain, no squashing of boots, no teeth chattering or whispers. I could only hear a faint ringing in my ears. Time seems to slow down. I stared up into the beautiful soldiers face as his lips moved at me, his brows furrowed. But no sounds came out of his mouth. There was no color, no emotion, no reason or meaning. There was only cold.
Like a broken child, the man cradled me in his arms and carried me toward the town stables. I caught glimpses of faces as we went. Some I recognized, some I didn’t. But they were all equally horrified as they looked into my eyes.
My ears suddenly began to work again as I struggled to form a coherent thought. The sound of shouting and crying came rushing back in and I gasped at the sudden noise. The soldier peered down at me.
“Calm down. Just breathe.” His voice was low enough that only I could hear him.
“M-my father... I need to say goodbye...” I whispered through silent tears. The man did not respond, though his mouth tightened at the corners. He tore his eyes from mine and continued forward.
“You do not look Fae.” He said quietly. My ear was pressed against his chest and his voice sounded deeper as it vibrated through his body.
“That’s because I’m not.” I hissed through clenched teeth.
“The ring does not lie.” He answered.
“Then it must be broken!” I replied desperately.
He shook his head. “It does not work that way. Magic cannot simply be broken.”
“And how do you know?” I asked, suddenly furious with him, with the world, with the gods... With everything. “If you are so well versed in magic, then perhaps it is you who should be dragged to the king’s feet in chains!”
His head snapped down, his intense eyes boring into mine. “Silence! Mind your tongue, girl, and do not speak again, or you will find that I keep my temper on a very short leash.” He warned.
I curled into myself as much as I could in the restraints of his chiseled arms. I covered my face with dirty hands and began to cry. The soldier carried me onward, toward an uncertain and frightening future.
A future that I was sure would be henceforth spent in chains, misery, and soon, would end in death.
I could only pray that it would be a swift one.