“What should I say?” Shai asked, the mud climbing inside her boots, seeping down between her toes.
“It’s your wish,” Amarine said, moving the dandelion puff closer. “I picked this for you. So please, say it. And when you do, we’ll watch the seeds scatter into the swamp like stars.”
And then the wish will come true was implied. Amarine was always more fantastical in the swamp, untethered from her daily duties and responsibilities in the Keep, while here Shai felt she could breathe freely before returning to town and its more practical worries. But with Amarine standing nearby, Shai’s concerns were only with the muck-soaked hem of her dress, and how soon it would be until Amarine’s father’s guards came to fetch her.
Amarine leaned in, holding the dandelion puff to Shai’s lips, smiling as always. Her eyes searched Shai’s face, but she would not find the wish there before it was said aloud. Shai understood the nature of wishes, the gravity of them. She understood that you did not wish for something you could buy, or something that could be given. You wished for something you wanted. And what Shai wanted was something worth wishing for.
“I wish,” Shai said, “I wish that we could be married.”
And with that, the seeds blew away into the swamp like stars, just as Amarine had said they would, but they did not take Shai’s worries with them. It was her turn to search Amarine’s face, and it had changed. Her eyes were cold from shock and now distant. Her mouth trembled with hesitation, and her constant smile had vanished.
Amarine, as the Lord’s daughter, stood to lose everything, and she knew that. Shai knew that. And the realization made Shai wanted to send all that knowing away, down into the black depths of the swamp pools where the dandelion seeds had gone. Send them away with the wish, which had vanished into the cold winter wind. So she took that trembling mouth of Amarine’s to hers, drawing it into a kiss.
They fell into familiarity. Shai’s mud-soaked fingers ran through Amarine’s dark curls, pulling her hair down in soft tugs. Her cold hands warmed as they searched for skin and then dress and then skin again. Her lips kissed the hesitation away from Amarine’s mouth, the shock away from her eyes, and the winter away from her cheeks. She held Amarine close, feeling her bones through her dress, and then holding them against her own soft hips.
This was what she wanted, forever and always. This was what she had wished for. She kissed Amarine until she forgot the cold, the guards, and everything. The world was only her and Amarine, together and absolute. Forever and always, happily ever after, until the sound of a horn tore them apart.
“My father...” Amarine said, holding Shai’s hand.
Shai was already fixing Amarine’s hair and fastening the buttons on her dress. There were no words that needed saying. Amarine’s home was in the Keep, with its stone walls and standing guards, while Shai had to hurry home to the thick dirt streets of town and its smells of iron and other people’s cooking. Amarine had to be found as alone as the guards had left her, to arouse no suspicion. She couldn’t be as alone as the two of them had been together, the rest of the world forgotten, making wishes and bestowing kisses—that would have to wait until an impossible day.
So Shai hurried back to town, catching one last glimpse of Amarine standing sentinel in the winter swamp. Shai knew Amarine would send another letter soon, and they would be together again, one day.
But this evening as Shai hurried back toward the border fences, she could not shake the feeling of being watched.
It had been three days since the kiss in the swamp, and Shai had spent them practicing her reading and doing other people’s mending. When her brother Yann came home filthy from his long day of blacksmith work, she washed his clothes and put out clean ones for the next day. Each night they shared the meal Shai cooked for them like every other night, and afterward Yann left for the tavern and Shai would be alone. Each day was the same as each night, and Shai brought joy to them all with thoughts of Amarine and her pale green eyes, her long dark hair, and her thin, smooth fingers.
On the third night, Yann returned home from the tavern, full of laughter with stories of his failed conquests before he fell fast asleep in his bed. But Shai lay awake, counting the stars. This time of year there were twelve she could see through the window, huddled close together like scared children. She counted them over and over to keep them safe as the clouds drifted over them, causing the room to go dark, and she waited, until it went darker still.
Someone was crouching in the window well.
Shai sat up, ready to call out, ready to scream. But she saw as the person approached that it wasn’t a person at all. As the clouds dispersed, Shai could see her swamp-weed wings, her slick sallow-green skin, her onyx black eyes. Her mother had told her stories about the swamp folk, about their tricks and promises, and how Shai must always act around them—polite and careful. She could hear her mother’s voice, “Remember, with the swamp fairies, you must only expect what you do not expect.”
“I have come to grant your wish,” the swamp fairy said, her head moving snake-like on her shoulders. “But I require something in return.”
Shai wanted nothing more than this. It was the only thing she had ever wanted since Amarine had first kissed her five happy years ago. There would be consequences, not only the swamp fairy’s, but within the town. But she and Amarine would be happy, Shai would see to that.
“What are the conditions?” Shai asked.
“The conditions are mine to consider,” the swamp fairy said. “The consequences yours. Do you accept?”
“What will you need?”
“Only three stars,” she said. “Three dandelion seeds fell into my pool, so I will take three stars from you.”
“I don’t understand.” Shai looked at her brother’s bed, he was still sleeping soundly.
“Shooting stars,” the swamp fairy said. “Your first three falling stars of spring. From the moment they fall, the night belongs to me.”
The fairy held up three webbed fingers, but Shai was cautious. Her mother had told stories about shooting stars, about their power to change people, and also their power to transform them. Shai turned to her brother, his chest still rising and falling in sleep. He wouldn’t approve. Ever since their mother had run away, and their father died along with nineteen other men when trying to bring her to justice, Yann had hovered over Shai, curious about everything she did. So she shared nothing of her life. Nothing about how she missed their mother, nothing about Amarine, nothing about her walks in the woods. In recent years, Yann had stopped asking questions, and Shai enjoyed her freedom. She lived her life of secrets as he lived a life without them.
But she couldn’t stay here with him. He would have her marry someone to make them rich; someone to elevate their standing. Amarine would be taken from her, only seen at town functions where Shai played the dutiful wife role to a man she didn’t care for; while the life she did care for stood within reach, but like most things too beautiful for this world, she would not be allowed to touch it.
No, she was done with Yann and the life he wanted so much for both of them. Shai was her mother’s daughter. She was strong like her, proud like her, and would fight for her life like her. It was time for her to become her own woman.
“I accept these terms,” Shai said. “Please grant my wish. It would do me honor.”
“It is yours,” the swamp fairy said, touching the tip of her finger to Shai’s forehead. “Now sleep.”
And she did.
Shai remembered the ceremony as a dreamlike small, intimate affair. Just her and Amarine, with the priest from the village rushing through his words in a whisper that competed with the sounds of the dying winter wind. The story Amarine told of the ceremony had hundreds of monsters in attendance, the swamp lit by will-o-the-wisps, and her ring slipped on with cold fingers she could still feel. They claimed the abandoned cottage in the woods beyond the swamp as their new home. The floorboards were full of holes, the roof leaked, and it was rumored to be haunted, but Shai couldn’t be happier. It felt welcoming to her, more like home than home had felt in years.
The morning after they were married, flowers had pushed themselves out of the mud to show off to whatever sunshine they could find. Spring was closing in, chasing winter out with its bright color.
As the weeks passed and the world started to smell new again, Shai built rabbit snares as Amarine sat at the window, gazing out at the mists rising off the swamp, lifting whatever burden she carried from her shoulders with heavy sighs. With every day Shai spent setting her snares and gathering food like her mother had taught her, Amarine’s mood grew darker.
“It’s too cold,” she complained in the mornings.
“I am so hungry,” she would say after dinner was done.
“The night is angry,” she said every night as the wind ripped through the rotten wood planks.
Each of these times, Shai wrapped Amarine in her arms to soothe her. She knew Amarine was too delicate, used to the Keep with its heavy walls where nothing was ever damp or cold. And now she was out here with Shai in a cottage so rotten it sometimes smelled of death and so precarious, children told wild stories about it.
So while she stroked Amarine’s dark hair, she told her stories about how the two of them befriended the ghosts, and the ghosts made the house warm for them, and into a home. And Shai did this every night, until Amarine’s grip eventually grew soft, and then slack, and then her breathing became heavy with sleep.
But still as the meadow came to life, Shai caught Amarine looking out the window, her cheek in her hand, staring at nothing. It was where Shai would find her when she came in with the day’s food, when she was cooking, doing the mending, tidying up. Amarine was a sad princess that would need rescuing in the fairy stories, but this was a different story entirely. Gone was the clever light from Amarine’s eyes, where she had always been thinking, imagining, and telling stories. Gone was the warmth from her cheeks and her hands, as the cottage had stolen it from her. Gone was the mirth from her voice and gestures. Melancholy had overtaken Amarine, and it threatened to overtake them both, if Shai could not beat it back.
Shai had to rescue Amarine, as she had to rescue herself.
She imagined herself on a white horse, decked in armor. She imagined herself riding up to the cottage, sword in her hand, and calling the melancholy out to battle. The battle was fierce and furious. Some days she won, and she could help Amarine. Some days the melancholy beat her back, and Shai was then beaten. But she knew she had to be the knight in this story and every story, like all the ones Amarine told. And she was. As whenever she took Amarine’s hand, she smiled sweetly. When they kissed the world exploded with wildflowers. Yet in all the times between, there was Amarine, with her heavy lidded eyes and deep sighs, filling Shai’s heart with despair.
Perhaps she had made the wrong wish, or asked for the wrong thing. This was not what she had wanted, not at all.
Shai’s mother had taught her well, but some things could not be gathered from the land. They needed simple provisions: bowls, spoons, cloth for clothes and blankets. Fearing retaliation from Yann or any of the Keep guards, Shai traveled to town only at dusk, when the shops were closing down, thinking the shopkeepers would be distracted. She disguised herself in Amarine’s cloak, which had a hood to hide her face, and a pair of her gloves. Neither of them fit. The cloak was too long, and the gloves too tight. Still, they did the job, as after three trips, Shai had still not been discovered.
This time Amarine wanted a teapot, and Shai would do anything to make her wife smile, so she made for town as darkness fell. But the sound of screams and clashing swords stopped her before she reached the border fences and with it, fear. Amarine’s father would have prevented anyone from attacking the town, so if this was happening, what had happened at the Keep?
She rushed forward, climbing the fences in her skirts and cloak, and darted out into the road. Heavy mists covered everything, obscuring the sounds of battle and cries of pain in a kind of dreamlike helplessness. Shai needed to know. In times of trouble, people gathered in the tavern for sanctuary; now would be no different. It would be dangerous, but she had no choice.
She took two steps forward when a figure burst out from the mists in front of her. Their body swayed, snake-like, and their dark, mud-cloaked armor faded into the waning light. Shai remained still. She did not speak; not wanting to provoke the stranger, whose sword still dripped with the blood of their last kill. Before she could look away, the stranger’s eyes met hers. They were onyx black, and the cheeks behind the dirt and bloodstains were a slick sallow green. Shai stepped back, raising her arms to protect her face, but the stranger only smiled with a mouth full of needle-thin teeth. And then as quickly as they arrived, they were gone.
Shai fell to her knees. She was alive, and suddenly aware of the silence from town.
“Lord’s dead,” the town’s tailor said. He was taking up two barstools in familiar posture with the bartender. “Slain precise like, by those strange swordsmen.”
“Precise?” the bartender said, his voice and eyes level to keep the peace. “How d’you know.”
“Son’s a guardsman,” the tailor said. “He survived. Said they skipped him by. Them bastards were only attacking specific people on a path, ignoring everyone else. Let everyone else live, including the Lord’s youngest son.”
“That sickly little thing?” the bartender said. “They kill his alchemist?”
“Aye,” the tailor said. “Shame. Damn shame.”
Shai leaned forward, straining to hear the conversation from her table at the rear of the room. The tavern wasn’t crowded, but she needed to be in shadow, so here she sat. But as patrons filed in, the conversation became more and more difficult to make out.
“...boy won’t survive the year now, don’t know what we’ll do.”
“There’s always Amarine,” the bartender said. “She’ll do what’s good for us.”
“Can’t do nothing as long as that witch has her,” the tailor said. He leaned in close, but increased his volume; he wanted to be heard. “That girl was just like her mother, like I always said. Her father couldn’t control her, her brother neither. Now look what happened.”
“You blaming this attack on Shai?” The bartender’s voice was just as loud. “She’s not that kind of girl.”
“Just cause you’re sweet on that thing...”
A darker shadow jumped over Shai’s table, breaking her concentration. She fell back, ready to defend herself with the dull skinning knife in her pocket, but the shadow remained, looming, waiting.
“Drink, stranger?” the shadow asked. It was only the barmaid, looking unfriendly.
“Wine,” Shai said, as the conversation at the bar continued.
“Mug or a glass?” The barmaid was smiling at her, all teeth, no mirth. Did she recognize her?
“Mug,” she said, tossing payment on the table.
“Good.” The barmaid’s smile remained loveless as she made her way to other patrons.
The conversation between the tailor and bartender was drowned out by other story pieces. “They came in from nowhere.” “Snuck in quiet as ghosts.” “Blades cut like magic.” The talking was unlike the conversation at the bar; it was afraid and urgent, and in want of action.
Before her drink was done, she was joined at her table by a girl her age and her twin young brothers. Shai recognized the girl as the miller’s daughter, Baelin. She knew Baelin from town meetings, festivals, and solstice celebrations at the Keep. They’d had conversations, played games, and their mothers had been friendly once, before everything had gone wrong. Baelin still blamed Shai for it.
Baelin could recognize Shai, and her disguise would be forfeit. The punishment for witchcraft was death. All Baelin had to do was look up, and Shai would lose everything. It was too dangerous to stay. So she stood up from her seat just as the tavern erupted into applause.
A man had stepped onto a table in front of her. His back was to her as he took a bow, but there was something familiar about him. The dark cast to his blond hair. The black grime around his fingernails that would never scrub away, and how his grey shirt was still stubbornly white, due to nightly washings. Yann raised his arms, and the cheers fell silent. Shai could not leave now.
“Our Lord is dead,” Yann said. “All his eligible heirs with him.”
“Your sister stole off with one,” a woman called out. “She learned too much from your mother.”
“That she did,” Yann said. “And I’m here to end that. We’re going to take back Amarine by killing that witch.”
The crowd fell into whispers. The murmur moved across them while Yann stood, firm and solid on the table, resolute. It was some time before someone spoke up. “You would kill your own sister?”
“That thing is no longer a sister of mine.”
“The King should know about this,” the bartender said.
“So he can appoint that sickly child in the Keep?” Yann said. “No, we need action now. Once we rescue Amarine, I will marry her, and I will become Lord.” The murmurs rose up again, this time with greater volume.
It was Baelin who started the applause first, slowly to get others to follow. And follow they did, with cheers, whistles, and then by converging on Yann. The patrons at the tables drank happily, looking around, pulling friends and lovers close. The evening’s previous slaughter was misdirected into vengeance. Blood for blood, they would take what they believed was theirs.
She turned to go, she had to go. With the distraction surrounding Yann, now was the perfect time to leave. Her heart was lunging against her chest, urging her out into the night, where she could be free.
“It’s not safe to leave yet, stranger,” Baelin said. “Those were fairy raiders. I’ve read the stories. Someone must have drawn their anger.”
“Might be the witch,” one of the brothers said. “Maybe she wants to be Lord.”
“My home is close,” Shai said. Her voice was hoarse from the dryness of her throat.
“Is it?” Baelin asked. “Then why do you hide your face if you are so familiar here?” Shai could feel Baelin’s judgmental stare. Suspicion had been roused, and Yann was too close to this table, making the rounds. She couldn’t let him see her face, hear her voice.
Without a word to Baelin, Shai sifted through the drunks to the tavern door. On the street, the corpses of the fallen were covered in bloodied sheets, ready for the wagon to collect them in the morning. She walked quickly, exiting through the town gates as a visitor or local farmer would. She took care to see she wasn’t followed.
In the clarity of fear, she noticed the apple blossoms in full bloom, and the crops in the fields peeking up above the black dirt. Spring had come, and with it so must have the fairy’s first falling star. Shai walked faster. Was the fairy raiders’ attack, because of her? Was Yann’s betrayal because of her? Was Amarine’s father dead, because of her? The fairy wanted this, for a reason only it knew; like her mother had always said, “There is no happily ever after, there is always a price.”
And in all this, Shai had forgotten about Amarine, home alone in the rotting cottage at the edge of the swamp. Against all warnings not to, Shai cut through a farmer’s yard, climbed the border fence, and ran through the woods, through the swamp, and arrived at home breathless, her mind racing with worry, only to hear singing coming from inside.
“I am so glad you’re here, my love,” Amarine said, resting her hand on Shai’s cheek. “You were gone for so long, I had started to worry.”
Her cloak was soaked with swamp muck and her gloves slick with sweat, but Amarine, usually fussy about these things, hung up the cloak and gloves without comment and helped Shai to her seat, which was set with flowers and candles, better than Shai had ever done. She wore a contented smile on her face, one that Shai had never seen before. She had always seen smiles borne from joy or happiness, the ones Amarine wore in the swamps, but this was different. It was so comfortable there.
“I thought you may be angry at me, so I went and checked your traps and made us dinner,” Amarine said.
“How did you learn to make rabbit stew?” Shai asked when their bowls were full.
“I’ve been paying attention,” Amarine said. “Father always said I was a quick study.”
Shai said nothing. With Amarine’s mention of her father, her appetite was gone.
“Why were you gone so long?” Amarine asked.
“The town was attacked,” Shai said. “I took shelter in the tavern with the others. Many were killed. The streets are littered with corpses.”
“Oh?” Amarine’s eyes were calm, collected. She was unmoved.
“Amarine,” Shai said, touching her wife’s hand. “Your father and brothers are dead.”
Amarine only nodded. “We are alive, Shai. You and me. That is all that matters.” She did not blink. “Eat, don’t let it get cold.”
“My father did not want us to be happy, I want us to be happy,” Amarine said, meeting Shai’s eyes. “Are you happy?”
“I am,” Shai said. “Are you?”
“I am,” Amarine said. “My father’s hold over me is over. Let us celebrate that. Let us be happy together.”
It was sudden behavior. Strange, but perfect. Shai was relieved and overwhelmed with Amarine’s change of heart. She refused to believe that it could be fairy magic. It was true love. The love her wife proclaimed for her on their wedding day, and the love Shai had which grew for her wife with each passing breath. She knew this was true, she had proof. Each time they kissed, it mended Amarine’s tears; each time they clasped hands, it made Amarine smile. Shai had been able to dispel Amarine’s melancholy with her adoration before, and now it was truly gone. What could be more magical than that?
It was all she ever wanted, all they both ever wanted. And now they had it.
She knew Amarine loved her. These past few months must have just been homesickness. Now Amarine knew her home was with her, in the cottage, because they were here together, forever. The stories of the ghosts had warmed her heart, the hand holding, the gentle caresses, all of it had brought Amarine to her. Shai sealed shut her own doubts, watching only the light in Amarine’s eyes become bright with hope.
As they lay in bed that night, Amarine’s kisses banished the fairy raiders from Shai’s mind. They banished thoughts of Yann, the swamp folk, and falling stars. The night was only Amarine.
And Shai was finally happy and content
The following morning the draft that passed through the walls whispered with the scent of spring, and the rain falling through the roof was fresh and warm. Shai spent the morning with Amarine collecting food and herbs, teaching her which plants in the forest were edible, as her own mother had taught her years ago. In the afternoon, they cooked together, told stories together, and held hands on their walk through the swamp. Shai listened to every word as Amarine’s voice swelled with joy as she talked about how they would keep warm by the fire as old women in the cottage, ignoring the town, ignoring everyone, because they only had to answer to each other alone.
Shai couldn’t tell Amarine about Yann’s plan. She couldn’t tell her about the town’s opinion of her, or their want to steal Amarine away. She wanted to stay in the woods forever, to live off the land, to go without the town’s resources, but she couldn’t. Their skinning knife had broken.
That evening, in town at the tannery, Shai heard a familiar voice. Baelin was nearby, talking to an older woman Shai’s mother would have known.
“Yann will make a good Lord,” the older woman said.
“You think Amarine will marry him?” Baelin asked. “She’s always been a strange one.”
“She will have no choice,” the older woman said. “It’s for the good of the town. She’ll do it, I’m certain.”
“I suppose,” Baelin said.
“You should have your husband join in the hunt,” the older woman said. “Yann is having trouble gathering the men he needs.”
“After what happened to his father, I am not surprised. This town needs their men, and they are worried. Dispatching witches has a sour history here.” Baelin shifted her weight, turning to face Shai, who pulled the hood tight around her face. But there was something about Baelin’s eyes that held Shai in place, even though she wanted to run.
“Aye,” the old woman said. “Damn shame his sister turned out the way she did.”
When Shai was able to leave, she went out through the gates, her fear of Baelin and Yann boiling in her head. She did not check if she was being followed, not from the tannery, not from the town gates, not from the dirt path by the farmers’ fields. There was no other sound but her own footsteps, her own heavy breathing, and a fox screaming in the fog.
But yet, she was unsurprised when someone grabbed her arm as she turned to leave the road.
“Stranger.” It was Baelin’s voice. “Are you spying on me?”
Shai kept her head bowed low. “It was you who sat at my table that night, not me at yours.”
“But now I find you listening in on my conversations, my plans,” Baelin said.
Only then did Shai tear her arm away. “No. You do that to yourself. Now let me be.”
“I know who you are, Shai Ironsmith, and I know where you are hiding. Soon Yann will too, and so will his men, and their hounds.”
“How do you know where we are hiding?”
But Baelin only smiled. “I will spare Amarine, for your sake,” she said. “But you will not be so lucky.”
And she shoved Shai away like garbage, sending her stumbling through the grass before she could catch her footing; all the while Baelin’s stare fixed her, tracking her. That feeling washed away all the happiness Shai had before arriving in town. It bored a hole through the day, sending all the good memories tumbling out.
But there was still the swamp fairy’s promise. Another star could fall and change Shai’s life forever, both Shai’s and Amarine’s. Baelin could turn into a tree in the middle of the road; Yann could drown in his soup; the town could welcome them with open arms; somehow, someway, it could still be the happiness she had wished for.
The feeling of Baelin’s stare was gone, Shai was too deep in the swamp now. She pounded off her worries through the swamp muck—there were too many things she wanted, that she would die for: Amarine’s smile as the first and last thing of every day, the taste of her breath on her tongue, the feel of her tiny fingers against her own skin. Shai’s breath became quicker the closer she got to home, and with each inhale, she made herself believe she was happy.
Amarine wanted to plant a garden, and she was wild with her plans. Shai watched her wife’s lips as she went on and on about which vegetables would winter well. Amarine had chipped a tooth yesterday while chopping wood, and it gave her beauty a feral quality. Now she looked dangerous, and Shai liked catching glimpses of it while she talked. Shai had too much she couldn’t say, so she left Amarine to hold her in her sway.
In bed that night, Amarine ran her hands over Shai’s body, but Shai pushed them away. “Not tonight,” she said. “I’m filthy from traveling.”
“I don’t mind,” Amarine said. “I’m filthy, too.”
“Please,” Shai said. “In the morning.”
Reluctantly, Amarine kissed Shai on the temple. “Get some rest, then. You’ll need it for the morning.”
The night was black when the knock came at the door. It was loud, authoritative, but small. Amarine woke, staring, her green eyes looking like swamp-pools in the dark. Shai stood, grabbing the skinning knife. She’d have preferred the axe, carelessly left outside, but the knife would have to do. Baelin’s warning rang fresh in her ears.
“Who’s there?” Amarine asked, her hands clutched at her chest. “Announce yourself.”
A third knock came as a question. Shai opened the door with caution, and found only a young boy—not more than five—standing outside.
“Are you lost?” Shai asked.
“Where’s your mother?” Shai had always been suspicious of strangers.
The boy shook his head, pointing out into the dark toward the swamp.
Amarine had joined them at the door. “Oh let the poor thing in, he’ll catch cold out there in the damp.”
Shai started a fire while Amarine bundled the boy up in a blanket. She held him on her lap, rocking him back and forth until he stopped shivering. The stew was warming and the fire was throwing shadows across the room as Shai stood alone and growing lonely. Something disturbed her about the boy. He kept his mouth closed when he smiled, and his hair was too thin for how tall he was. It was off-putting, he looked wrong, he acted wrong, and she felt wrong around him, but she kept herself to herself. To this boy she would be only a woman alone with her friend Amarine, not a witch at all.
He lost himself in the blankets and wrapped his arms around Amarine while she told him stories. All Shai’s favorites about gallant knights and their battles to save fair maidens. She told other stories as well, about men who were in love with princesses, but how those princesses were in love with other men—ones who could turn into dragons. She told stories of girls who thought they could do no wrong and the magical punishments that befell them. The boy never once looked at Shai, his dark eyes were locked on Amarine as her stories moved to those about the swamp folk.
“Their gifts are grand but always given with a price,” she said. “So always be kind to them, and never ever be rude.”
The boy ate his stew slowly, allowing all of Amarine’s stories to unfold, more and more of them that Shai had never heard, each more unbelievable than the last. Between tiny bites, he laid his head on Amarine’s chest and asked for details between details, and Amarine gave them. The two of them became more beautiful than any tapestry Shai had ever seen: Amarine wove out the beauty of the swamp folk kingdom, and the nuances of dragon magic; the shine of the sun on a knight’s sword, and the spray of blood from a fallen foe; and how to tell whether a fairy was being polite or cunning.
As the stories wove tighter, they cocooned Amarine and the boy up in their fantastical kingdoms and heroes and villains, and Shai was pushed away. She was alone in the shadows cast by the firelight and the smell of stew and damp and the feeling in the cottage that she was never alone. Amarine and the boy became the center of the worlds they were creating around themselves, and when Shai had had enough and felt like she couldn’t reach either of them anymore and they were worlds apart and she would die of heartbreak, she heard birdsong.
Dawn had broken.
Light crept through the cottage, as if afraid to interrupt, and when it reached Amarine’s toes, she caught her breath as if waking up from a nightmare. The boy unwound himself from her arms and the blanket and stood. In the light, Shai could see his slick sallow-green skin, his webbed fingers, his onyx black eyes. She felt hollow when she glanced at Amarine, whose own eyes only held affection for the boy.
“I feel better now,” he said.
“You never told us your name,” Amarine said.
“Pic,” the boy said.
“That’s a funny name for a boy,” Amarine said.
“Is it?” Pic asked in an older, more familiar voice. Then he smiled. His mouth was full of needle-thin teeth.
Shai went silent as Amarine helped Pic to bed by the hearth, tucking him into the blankets, ensuring he was comfortable and warm. She seemed unbothered by Pic’s unusual nature, so Shai told herself the boy was no threat to them. Afterward, as they lay curled together in their bed, Shai was restless. The events of the long night had left her feeling full of dread. And as she listened to the wet, soft sounds of Pic’s breathing, that feeling only tightened its grip.
The fits started the next morning. Shai first found Amarine at the woodpile, standing still, axe held in her hand. Her eyes looking off to nothing, her grip on the axe firm, her feet planted into the ground. Shai shook her, kissed her, held her, whispered in her ear. She yelled at her, she pushed her, she slapped her across the face. But for an hour Amarine stood still as a carved wooden statue, taking time only to breathe and blink, and when she came back to herself, she did not believe an hour had passed.
Amarine did not know where she had gone, or that she had gone anywhere. “I was right here,” she said. “Chopping wood for the fire.”
“No, you had disappeared,” Shai said. “Your body was here, but you were gone.”
“Don’t be silly. I have nowhere to go.”
The fits continued. Amarine would be gone for ten minutes, or three hours. The day passed like this, and Shai did not feel she could leave her wife’s side for a moment. As what would happen if Amarine disappeared while she was building a fire? Or taking a bath? This left Amarine perplexed and amused, asking what she did to deserve such close and loving attention. But each time Amarine had a fit, Shai was right there, to make sure she was the first thing she saw upon coming back.
Pic was to blame, of course, but only after blaming herself. He must have come from the second star; he must have been sent by the fairy. Shai was a fool to have thought that her wish would work out in her favor and everything would go her way. Amarine’s story came back to her—Shai had thought she could do no wrong, and now she was paying the price.
Her mother had always said how the events of one evening laid out consequences for weeks and years, how what people did in life was never confined to a single moment. She had made that bargain with the fairy not considering anything at all, she only thought about what she wanted, and now she reaped the punishment. Amarine was being taken from her by minutes and hours, all because of a silly dandelion seed.
She crept out of bed that night and walked out past the freshly tilled soil of Amarine’s new garden. The frog song covered up all sound, and the forest canopy was so thick it was dark and black as far as the eye could see, as it was every night. But tonight there was a light, twenty paces out. A lantern. Someone had found them.
“You there,” Shai said. “Who goes there?”
“I told you I knew where you were hiding,” Baelin said. She stepped out, her face illuminated. “Your mother died here. Our fathers died here. Now you will, too.”
“I did not know,” Shai said. She took a step back toward the log pile, toward the axe.
“You were too young. But Yann knows, he remembers, of course he remembers.”
“So you’ve come to kill me now?” She took another step back, she would only need a few more to reach the axe. “Kill me before you take Amarine. I cannot bear to see you take her away from me.” But Baelin wasn’t following Shai back toward the log pile. Moving further was too risky, it would leave the front door exposed, and then... and then Amarine would be gone forever. No, Shai would have to do this another way— She would have to play Baelin’s game.
“What do you want, Baelin?”
“Retribution for my father’s death,” Baelin said. “And I will have it.” She turned around and opened her hand, blowing across it to scatter some dust behind her that got carried away on the breeze until it eventually escaped the light. “That was your scent, which I stole it from your cloak last night. Now Yann’s hounds can track you across the water. I will bring him to you, just as I promised.”
“Your mother taught you well,” Shai said.
“And yours taught you nothing.” Baelin lift the lantern higher, looking over Shai’s shoulder. “Pity for you they always pick the wrong women.”
“When will my brother come?” Shai asked. “You can tell me that much.”
But Baelin shrugged and then everything went dark. Shai lunged forward at the spot where Baelin had stood, but there was nothing left. The only light left came from the dwindling hearth inside the cottage; there was no splash of footsteps, no clamor of horse hooves. Baelin had disappeared as quietly as she had come, and now she’d left a trail for the hounds to follow. Yann would be coming soon; the danger was too near. She and Amarine had to leave.
Shai hurried inside to pack provisions. They would flee the cottage tonight.
Shai was gathering food and water when the door behind her flew open. She whipped around, catching sight of Amarine and Pic rushing out of the cottage, laughing and holding hands. Shai followed them, leaving everything behind, the food, the water, the cottage. She rushed out to the edge of the swamp to see them disappear into the dark. She could only hear their footsteps playing in the water, then sludging through the muck, then leaping over tree branches.
She would kill Pic for this, fairy or not. She wrenched their axe from the wood block and ran off after them into the swamp. When her feet hit the cold water, she didn’t stop. Amarine’s laughter pulled her forward through the dark. She ran as she had run to Amarine every time they met secretly in the swamp. She ran as she had run to the cottage fearing Yann’s retribution, Baelin’s warning, the town’s fury. She ran with both fear and worry driving her forward to the sound of Amarine’s footsteps. As love had driven before, love drove her forward again.
Amarine and Pic were running so fast, so easily, while Shai struggled for every step she took. The axe’s weight was heavy but she refused to let go. She had to climb over tree branches, fighting the weight of her soaked boots and skirts. She often fell into deeper water, and every time would pick herself up, hearing their footsteps even further away, their laughter too distant not to be a memory. Her breath was wet in her chest and her heartbeat was loud in her ears.
Soon, too soon, the swamp sounds drowned out Amarine’s laughter, her footsteps, Shai’s hope. She heard Pic’s laughter crescendo before she caught sight of a will-o-the-wisp. Shai called out to it, “Stop! Please!” And then it was gone, and she was alone.
The swamp fairy had promised that she and Amarine would be married; that was all Shai had wished for. Now, Amarine had been stolen from her, and Shai had nothing. She sunk to her knees in the water, drawing the axe across her lap; all her hope had gone.
If I stay here, I can become part of the swamp, she thought. As much of it has become part of me. Two nights before her mother had run off, she had kissed Shai on the forehead and said, “You will always be my special star.” It was the last good memory Shai had of her. She searched her memories for the last one of Amarine, but she couldn’t find one. She was empty. She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t move.
For years Amarine had loved her. They met secretly, but Shai had wanted more. She had ruined it, she had been selfish, she hadn’t considered anyone else’s wants but her own. Now Amarine was gone, lost, and Shai was lost. Sinking into the swamps to be swallowed by them forever.
Hounds bayed in the distance, and with it came the sound of splashing feet. The mob had come for her, and they would find her here—a broken shell of a thing, an empty piece of what she once was. No, she wouldn’t let them have that.
Off in the distance there was a light of a will-o-the-wisp. There. There she would make her last stand. Shai was her mother’s daughter, and she would die as she imagined her mother had, fighting to her last breath. She started running, and the dogs picked up pace. Their howling was getting louder, and the footsteps were coming closer. They had her scent; they would take her down.
She sped up, fighting against the weight of everything that tried to hold her back. She ran for her mother, she ran for her father, she ran for Amarine, and she ran for herself. She ran until her breathing choked her, until she fell more times than she stepped forward. She ran until she was crawling, until she was coughing, until she was shaking. She would die before she reached that light, but at least she would die knowing she hadn’t given up. She would die with pride still in her.
When her muscles seized and her throat was lit with fire, she stopped moving, hearing the crash of footsteps closing in. As she lowered herself into the water, she felt lighter. She forgave herself for not saving her mother, for not stopping her father. She allowed herself to love her brother and his want to protect the town, to protect her. She forgave herself for her wish, and her want to love Amarine. And she allowed herself to believe that Amarine was safe, safer than she would be with Yann, safer than she would be with her or anyone now. She let go of her regret, her self-doubt, her hate, and when it was all gone, she knew she could die.
At peace with herself, she closed her eyes to sink deep into the cold when someone lifted her up from the mud.
“Be still,” the swamp fairy said.
The fairy’s fingers closed like a vice on Shai’s shoulders, her black eyes fathomless. Shai tried to pull away, but there was nothing of her left.
“Shh,” the swamp fairy said, setting her down. In her hand, she held a single dandelion puff. “Make a wish, but choose carefully.”
With one wish Shai had lost everything she had and everything she wanted, so what would the cost of another be? As the swamp fairy cradled Shai’s head and neck in her webbed fingers, Shai thought of something she hadn’t considered: why. Why grant her wish? Why turn Yann against her? Why take Amarine away?
But Shai was too weak, so all she could say was: “Why?”
Yann’s voice in the distance called for everyone to close ranks, and there was torchlight shining off the water. The hounds were so close that their pursuit had become the padding of soft dog-steps. Through all this, the swamp fairy held Shai, her skin shimmering, her onyx black eyes reflecting the torchlight.
“Hurry,” she said. “We do not have much time.”
What did Shai want? She wanted Amarine back. She wanted the mob gone. She wanted to be in love as she had been these past few weeks but before as well. She wanted her brother gone. She wanted Amarine’s family alive. She wanted so much. Too much.
She could hear Yann clearly now. “Torches high,” he said. “Weapons at the ready.”
Shai closed her own hand around the swamp fairy’s and looked into her black eyes.
“I wish,” she said. “I wish I had the power to undo all that has been done to me.”
And she blew the seeds away like stars, and fell into darkness.
“Is it her?” Yann asked.
“No,” Baelin said. “It isn’t. Don’t touch it.”
Shai opened her eyes and stood, and the men fell back, holding their weapons higher. Their torches were stuck fast in the mud. When Shai took a step forward, she felt unsteady, her arms and legs loosely connected, her body reacting in a swerving, drunken way. Her mind was agile and crisp. She assessed the threat: thirty men, no, fifty, all with swords, axes, or pitchforks, and she was unarmed and free of fear.
She looked down at her sallow-green slick hands, shining in the torchlight. She saw her naked legs, her bare feet. With the fairy’s third star, Shai had been transformed. Her body knew what to do without her; her wings extended, sending several men to their knees, but Yann and Baelin stood firm.
“Stand down, fairy,” Yann said. “Tell us where the witch went.”
He did not want the answers he would get, and he was not asking the right way. So she took a clumsy, snake-like step toward him. Yann raised his sword higher, Baelin moved forward. The poor fools, they were only making this worse for themselves.
“Tell us,” Yann said. “Or die.”
Shai smiled her response. She did not have to answer Yann’s question, for the first time in years. She did not have to tell him anything. She had her family with her now, and they were close, closer than he’d ever been with her. They were behind her, around her, rallying with her. As she reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, he swung his sword, but her movements were quick, darting. She closed her fingers around his throat.
“Yann, there’s more,” Baelin said. “Three more... no four. Five... six. We’re surrounded.”
She stumbled back and was snatched high up by the shoulders.
“I’ve come for Amarine,” Yann said. “I only want to take her home.”
“But brother,” Shai said. “She is home. She is with me, and we are home.”
And she extinguished the torches, plunging them all into the black swamp night.
The mouths and lungs of twenty men filled with water that night. They drowned in a melee of fists and wings; of screeches and cries. The dogs remained placid, silent, eventually making their own way home. Yann was among the twenty, buried in the muck like Shai’s father, who had come for her mother so many years ago. Baelin, too, was lost—she had never been as clever as her own mother. The thirty that remained hurried home when dawn broke, when the rooftops of town were silhouetted against the sky.
As the sun filtered through the trees and shone off the swamp pools, Shai and Amarine claimed one as their own. They dipped down beneath the water together and saw a world made of starlight and wishes, of potential and emotion. A world where love was so real, it was singing. Shai took Amarine’s hand in hers, their webbed fingers winding together, their onyx black eyes fixed on the wonder before them.
While they stood, their wings at rest, Shai felt Amarine’s heartbeat in harmony with her own while the scene played out before them in flashes of light and color, both familiar and overwhelming. Like when her mother and father would laugh in the kitchen while she and her brother fought at the table. The house then smelled of warm fires and her mother’s cooking, and there was nothing ever but happiness there.
Like when Amarine first kissed Shai on the long road by the Keep. Her eyes were so bright green and curious, and her lips were as pale as her skin; she looked as perfect as a drawing. And Shai reached out with her own soft hand and stroked Amarine’s hair for what she wanted to be forever.
Shai held Amarine’s hand tightly in hers as she stepped forward—this was what she’d always wanted, for her, for Amarine, for the both of them. She was surrounded by mothers and brothers, by fathers and sisters, by lovers and paramours, by all the magic in the world, and love. Love to give, love to receive, love to offer to the world freely, and Shai could feel it welcoming her and Amarine in.
This was where they belonged. She touched Amarine’s forked tongue with hers, ran her needle-thin teeth along Amarine’s lips, and it was like this that they tumbled down through the waves of magic, through the starlight, until they arrived finally home.