Prince of Foxes
Today was the queen’s funeral and Lachlan, her only child and heir to the throne, was deliberately avoiding the ceremony.
His mother would understand, he was sure. He’d never been one for mournful occasions; most of the Seelie folk weren’t. Their lives were long enough to be considered immortal by the humans who largely lived, unknowing and unseeing, beside them. If Lachlan allowed himself to be truly sad he’d spend centuries feeling that way.
It was the last thing he wanted.
So Lachlan was currently whiling away his morning following a human girl who was collecting early autumn brambles on the outskirts of the forest. She lived in Darach, the closest human settlement to the central realm of the Scots fair folk. The people who lived there were, in general, respectful and wary of Lachlan and his kind. They saw what members of the Seelie Court could do fairly regularly, after all. The rest of the British Isles was another story entirely, though it hadn't always been that way.
Everybody in the forest knew things were changing.
The advancements made in human medicine, and human technology, and human ingenuity, meant that humans were beginning to forget what it felt like to fear 'otherness'. They believed themselves above tales of faeries, and magic in general, though Lachlan knew there were humans capable of magic, too.
Not here, though, he thought, creeping from one tall bow of an oak tree to another to trail silently after the girl. She was happily eating one bramble for every two she placed in her basket, seemingly without a care in the world. Not on this island. Not for centuries. Lachlan knew this was largely because his mother, Queen Evanna – as well as King Eirian of the Unseelie Court far down south, in England – spirited all such magically-inclined British children away to the faerie realm, to live for all intents and purposes as faeries themselves.
That's certainly better than being an ordinary human, especially now, when they've forgotten about us.
A stiff breeze tearing through the oak tree caused Lachlan's solitary earring to jingle like a bell. Adorned with delicate chains and tiny sapphires, and spanning the entire length of his long, pointed ear as a cuff of beaten silver, the beautiful piece of jewellery had been a gift from his mother from a time long since passed. Back then Lachlan had been enamoured with the blue-eyed faerie, Ailith, and had been convinced the two of them would marry. The earring was ultimately meant as a gift for Ailith, he'd decided. His mother would never be so direct as to give it to Lachlan's beloved herself. It wasn’t in her nature.
But then Queen Evanna had married the half-Unseelie faerie, Innis, who was the Unseelie king’s brother. He had himself a grown son, Fergus, who came with his father to live in the Seelie realm. The two were silver where Lachlan and his mother were gold, and Ailith had become betrothed to his new-found stepbrother instead of him.
So Lachlan lost his love and, now, he’d lost his mother. The earring was all he had left of both.
I should go to the funeral, he decided, turning from the girl as he did so. I am to be king, after all. I should –
Lachlan paused. He could hear something. More chime-like than his earring in the wind, and clearer than the sound of the nearby stream flowing over centuries-smooth stone.
The human girl was singing.
“The winds were laid, the air was still,
The stars they shot alang the sky;
The fox was howling on the hill,
And the distant echoing glens reply.”
Lachlan was enamoured with the sound of her voice. The words were Burns; the melody unfamiliar. He thought perhaps she’d invented the tune herself and, if so, she was a talented girl indeed. He peered through the yellowing leaves of the oak tree, intent on seeing what the human with the lovely voice truly looked like.
She was not so much a girl as a young woman – perhaps not quite twenty – though since Lachlan himself had lived for almost five times that long she was, for all intents and purposes, still simply a girl. Her skin was pale and lightly freckled, though her cheeks held onto some colour from the fast-fading summer. Her hair was a little darker than the oak trunk Lachlan was currently leaning against. It flashed like deep copper when it caught the sunlight and hung long and wild down her back, which was a sight rarely seen on a young, human woman.
A cream dress fell to her ankles and sat low on her shoulders. Small leather boots, made for wandering through forests and across meadows, were laced across her feet. A cloak of pine-coloured fabric was slung over the handle of her almost-full wicker basket. Well-made clothes, he concluded, but nothing elaborate or expensive. Just an ordinary girl. She dithered over the correct words of the next verse of her Burns poem as Lachlan merrily watched on. Fair to look at, for a human. But it is her voice that is special. Special enough to ask her name.
He delighted over thinking how his stepfather and stepbrother would react when he brought back a human girl, enchanted to sing for him until the end of time. I wonder what Ailith would think. Would she be jealous? Would she mourn for the loss of my attention?
Lachlan was excited to find out.
He stretched his arms above his head, causing his earring to jingle once more. Below him the girl stilled. She stopped singing, dark brows knitted together in confusion.
“Is somebody there?” she asked, carefully placing her basket down by her feet as she spoke.
“You have a lovely voice,” Lachlan announced. He was satisfied to see the girl jump in fright, eyes swinging wildly around before she realised the voice she’d heard came from above. When she spied Lachlan standing high up on the boughs of the oak tree she gasped.
“You are – it is early to see one of your kind so far out of the forest,” she said. She struggled to maintain a blank face, to appear as if she wasn’t surprised in the slightest to see a faerie standing in a tree.
Lachlan laughed. “I suppose it is. Today is a special occasion; we are all very much wide awake.”
The girl seemed to hesitate before responding. Lachlan figured she was trying to decide if it was wise to continue such a conversation with him. “What occasion would be so special to have you all awake before noon?”
“The funeral of the queen. My mother.”
That was all she said. Lachan had to wonder what kind of reaction he’d expected. Certainly not sympathy; he had no use for such a thing.
“You are not at the funeral?” the girl asked after a moment of silence. “If you are her son –”
“I shall get there eventually,” Lachlan replied. He sat down upon the branch he’d been standing on. “Tell me your name, lass. Your voice is too beautiful to not have a name attached to it.”
To his surprise, she smiled. “I do not think so, Prince of Faeries.”
“You wound me,” he said, holding a hand over his heart in mock dismay. “An admirer asks only for a name and you will not oblige his lowly request? How cruel you are.”
“How about a name for a name, then?” she suggested. “That seems fair.”
Lachlan nodded in agreement. The girl could do nothing with his name. She was only human.
“Lachlan,” he replied, with a flourish of his hand in place of a bow. “And you?”
“A pretty name for a pretty girl. Is there a family name to go with –”
“I am not so much a fool as to give you my family name,” Clara said, “and I think you know that.”
He found himself grinning. “Maybe so. Come closer, Clara. You stand so far away.”
He was somewhat surprised when she boldly took a step forwards, half expecting her to decide enough was enough and run away.
Even careful humans give in to the allure of faeries, he thought, altogether rather smug. It won’t be long until I have Clara’s full name.
When Clara took another step towards him Lachlan noticed that her eyes were green.
No, blue, he decided. No, they’re –
“Your eyes,” he said, deftly swinging backwards until he was hanging upside down from the branch. Lachlan’s face was now level with Clara’s, though the wrong way round. She took a shocked half-step backwards at their new-found proximity. “They are strange.”
“I do not think my eyes are as strange as yours, Lachlan of the forest,” she replied. “Yours are gold.”
“Not so uncommon a colour for a Seelie around these parts. Yours, on the other hand…we do not see mismatched eyes often.”
Clara shrugged. “One blue, one green. They are not so odd. Most folk hardly notice a difference unless they stand close to me.”
“Do many human boys get as close to you as I am now?” Lachlan asked, a smile playing across his lips at the blush that crossed Clara’s cheeks.
She looked away. “I cannot say they have.”
“Finish your song for me, Clara. I’ll give you something in return.”
“And what would that be?” she asked, glancing back at Lachlan. Her suspicion over the sudden change of subject was written plainly on her face.
He swung himself forwards just a little until their lips were almost touching. “A kiss, of course.”
“That’s…and what if I do not want that?”
“Then I guess I leave with a broken heart.”
Clara’s eyebrow quirked.
“You do not believe me,” he complained.
“With good reason.”
“You really are a cruel girl.”
The two stared at each other for a while, though Lachlan was beginning to grow dizzy from his upside down view. But just as he was about to right himself, Clara took a deep breath and began to sing once more.
There were four verses left of her Burns poem, about a ghost who appeared in front of the poet to lament over what happened to him in the final years of his life, and it was both haunting and splendid to hear. Lachlan mourned for the spirit as if it had been real, and wished there was more to the poem for Clara to sing.
But eventually she sang her last, keening note, leaving only the sound of the wind to break their silence. When Lachlan crept a hand behind her neck and urged her lips to his Clara fluttered her eyes closed. The kiss was soft and chaste – hardly a kiss at all – but just as it ended Lachlan bit her lip.
The promise of something more, if Clara wanted it.
The girl was breathless and rosy-cheeked when Lachlan pulled away. A rush ran through him at the sight of her.
“Tell me your last name,” he breathed, the order barely audible over the breeze ruffling Clara’s hair around her face.
She opened her eyes, parting her lips as if to speak and –
The sound of bells clamoured through the air.
Clara took a step away from Lachlan immediately, eyes bright and wide and entirely lucid once more.
“I have to go,” she said, stumbling backwards to pick up her forgotten basket and cloak before darting away from the forest.
No matter, Lachlan thought, as he dropped from the branch to the forest floor. I shall see her again. I will have her name next time.
But he was disappointed.
Now he had to go to his mother’s funeral alone, with no entertainment to distract him from his grief when evening came.
“Have I lost my senses entirely?” Sorcha cried. “Singing for a faerie. Their prince! I must have gone mad!”
She passed Old Man MacPherson’s farm in a haze of scurried footsteps, dropping brambles from the basket clutched to her chest as she went. The man’s son was up on the roof; he waved to Sorcha when he noticed her, and she nodded in response. He was replacing a slate tile which had come loose and smashed upon the ground in the middle of the night. Soon the mild weather would turn and the farm would need to be as watertight as possible to avoid the coming rain, which arrived hand-in-hand with the darkest months of the year.
But Sorcha was happy with the promise of wet, cold days and wetter, colder nights. For though the creeping autumn weather and the inevitable winter that followed caused damage to roofs and fields and sometimes livestock, it also signalled a blessed end to the slew of tourists that had bombarded the tiny town of Darach since April.
Good riddance to them, Sorcha thought with vicious pleasure. Let them return to their cities and their pollution.
She paused by the loch-side to pick up a pair of empty glass bottles and a filthy handkerchief. Sorcha scowled; only a city-dweller would leave behind such a mess on the shore of the most beautiful loch in the country.
I’m biased, of course, she thought. All lochs are beautiful. But Loch Lomond is…special.
Sorcha skipped a stone across the water’s surface, watching as it leapt once, twice, three times. On its fourth skip it fell beneath the dark, shimmering surface of the loch, never to be seen again.
She rearranged the basket and cloak in her arms to make room for the rubbish she had picked up, tossing the offending items into a large receptacle behind her parents’ house when she finally reached it. The house was handsome to look at, and finer made than the nearby farmhouses. Red stone and slate, with painted windowsills and a sweeping garden that circled all around the building. Sorcha loved it; it had been in the Darrow family for as long as anybody could remember. Now it was almost all that remained of their wealth.
Generations ago the Darrows had been far richer than they were now. They were the landlords for the area, owning the very ground Sorcha walked upon right up through the forest and along the shore of the loch. The farmers in the area were all tenants of her father, and nobody could so much as cut down a tree or keep a boat on the loch without his permission.
But Sorcha’s father was a kind man, and an understanding one. Despite outside pressure from the cities and an increased cost of living, he never raised the rent for the people who lived on his land. It was part of the reason the Darrows were much poorer now, but Sorcha was happy for it.
She could never forgive her father if he sold his principles for a more comfortable life.
Though I have to wonder why he’s agreed to meet this Londoner for the third time in as many months, Sorcha thought as she crept into the kitchen as quietly as possible. She dumped her basket of brambles on the table, hung up her cloak, then used the large window overlooking the back garden to check her reflection. She looked just about as windswept and bothered as she felt, with wild hair, red cheeks and a dishevelled dress.
Sorcha knew she really should have put her hair up before going outside. She knew this, but it hadn’t stopped her keeping it long and loose down her back instead. She ran her fingers through it in an attempt to tidy her appearance, wincing when she met tangle after tangle. She smoothed out her dress, splashed cold water on her face from a basin by the sink, then left the kitchen to walk down the corridor towards the parlour room.
She could hear both of her parents inside, as well as the stranger they had insisted upon Sorcha meeting today. Of course she hadn’t wanted to; she had no interest in Londoners. But she was an obedient daughter, and she knew she was lucky to have parents that had not once pressured her into marriage, though Sorcha would turn twenty at the end of the month. She could be polite and lovely for this one Englishman.
The very notion of being lovely caused Sorcha’s thoughts to return to Lachlan. It had seemed like a dream, to meet the Prince of Faeries. Sorcha had met her share of his kind before, though they tended to slip from her vision just as easily as she had laid eyes on them. On the occasions they had spoken to her they quickly gave up trying to charm her once they realised she would not give them her name.
I nearly gave it to Lachlan, though. This wasn’t quite true, of course; Sorcha hadn’t given him her real first name. Had she told him her surname was Darrow he could have done nothing with it. And, even then, if he knew her first name was Sorcha, he did not know her middle name.
Her father was a smart man. He had raised a clever daughter. Sorcha would not be caught be a faerie so easily.
I wanted to be caught even just for a moment, she thought despite herself, dwelling longingly on the memory of Lachlan’s warm, golden skin and molten eyes. Even his braided, bronze-coloured hair had seemed to be spun of gold when the sunlight shone upon it. The silver cuff adorning one of his inhumanly pointed ears had seemed mismatched against it all, though the sapphire-encrusted piece of jewellery had been so beautiful Sorcha thought she might well have died to possess it for but a minute.
She brought her fingertips to her lips, committing the feeling of Lachlan’s mouth on hers to memory. He kissed me like it was nothing at all. Does he go around kissing every young woman he sees whilst hanging upside down from a tree?
It struck Sorcha that she had not taken notice of Lachlan’s clothes even once, though he had said he was going to a funeral. Were they black? she wondered. I do not think so. Would faeries wear black to a funeral? What are faerie funerals like? And this was their queen. Lachlan’s mother. He did not seem all that sad. Just how did she –
“Sorcha Margaret Darrow, if you do not get in here this instant I will lock you in your room until the end of the year!”
Sorcha flinched at her mother’s voice reverberating through the door. The woman had the uncanny ability to know when her daughter was lurking where she shouldn’t be – which was often – and was quick to scold her. She sighed heavily, forced all thoughts of Lachlan away for another time, then fixed a smile to her face before swinging the door open.
“I’m sorry, mama, I was cleaning up by the loch-side,” Sorcha apologised. Her mother clucked her tongue.
“It is not befitting a young lady to go around cleaning up filthy bottles and – look at your hair! That is no way to appear in front of a guest! Go and –”
“It’s quite alright, Mrs Darrow,” interrupted a low, gravelly voice. Though it was largely smoothed over with the typical accent of upper-class London that Sorcha had come to resentfully recognise from tourists, there still existed a trace of local, melodic Scots that she liked the sound of.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw her father, a mild expression on his face that suggested he did not care what Sorcha looked like. He was simply glad she had shown up at all. He inclined towards his guest with a hand.
“Sorcha, this is Murdoch Buchanan, a gentleman who grew up not ten miles from here before moving down to London when he was twelve. Mister Buchanan, this is my lovely daughter, Sorcha.”
She withheld a wince; Sorcha did not like her real name revealed to anyone but her closest friends, despite the fact her mother thought this silly. But the lessons her father had instilled in her from a young age – to be wary of strangers, for they might be faeries – very much filtered into her attitude towards tourists. And this man, Murdoch Buchanan, had already heard her full name.
Thanks, mama, she thought dully as she turned towards the man with an apologetic smile on her face, curtsying as she did so. “I am truly sorry for my appearance and my lateness, Mr Buchanan. It was an accident.”
“No need to be sorry for wishing to keep the loch-side clean. It is a truly beautiful place; those responsible for sullying it ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
Maybe this Londoner isn’t so bad. He was born around here, after all. He might not be detestable.
Sorcha allowed herself to look at the man properly for the first time. Murdoch was tall and dressed impeccably in a white shirt, dark grey tail coat with matching waistcoat, ebony trousers and shiny leather boots. His black hair grew in loose curls around his head, and his face was clean-shaven. His eyes were dark.
Not just dark, Sorcha thought. They are as black as his hair. They were the most striking thing about him, though Murdoch was, by anyone’s measure, a very handsome man.
His impossibly dark eyes watched Sorcha intently as she watched him. She did not know what to say; she had the most unsettling feeling that something bad was about to happen.
“Mister Buchanan is going to be staying with us for a few days, Sorcha,” her mother said, dragging her daughter out of her own head.
“Why?” she asked, though she knew she could have worded the question a little more politely.
“You know things have been getting harder for us around here,” her father said. “Something has to be done to preserve the area so that nothing bad can happen to us, or to the farmers. I don’t want what’s happening in the Highlands to occur here.”
Sorcha nodded. Everyone knew about the Clearances. An icy chill ran down her spine.
“What does this have to do with Mr Buchanan staying with us?”
It was her mother who answered. She sounded excited, which was a bad thing. Margaret Darrow being excited was a very, very bad thing indeed. “Why, Sorcha,” she began, standing up to envelop her daughter’s hands within her own. She smiled brightly. “You are going to marry him!”
Sorcha’s mind went blank. She could only stare at Murdoch Buchanan in horror. He was a Londoner. A stranger. She did not know him, nor did he know her.
Yet he had already agreed to marry her.
She took a step towards the door, then another and another.
“No,” was all she said, before fleeing for her bedroom.
No, no, no.