Catriona Banks is a thief. She has dedicated her life to stealing precious artifacts and selling them for ridiculous amounts of money. She comes from a family of thieves and she knows no other way of life. She breezes through this world as if she owns it and everything in it. In her greatest achievement to date, Catriona Banks stole the greatest treasure of the Faerie courts. And she keeps it from them even now.
She is very good at her job.
But faeries are unforgiving. They are ruthless and relentless. They hate Catriona for taking what was theirs. Three days ago they found her. They braved the world of iron and steel to break into her home and they whisked her away to their realm. I managed to hide and escape from her house before they found me too. Since then, I have been running. Every day I’ve managed to stay one step ahead of them and avoid being captured.
But that isn’t enough – I need to save Catriona.
I stand at the edge of the forest that hides the pathway between worlds. Above me, the branches of ancient trees sway in a breeze that I can’t feel. Around me, flowers bloom in resplendent purples, reds and blues but they release no fragrance into the air. Ahead of me lies a well-travelled path through fields of emerald grass, leading to a castle straight out of the fairy tales. It stands alone, an island in a sea of green, its golden towers rising up into the clear blue sky. Even the guards are things of beauty – patrolling the battlements are tall, lithe and undeniably attractive men. They wear gleaming, close-fitting breastplates that define and shape their well-muscled torsos. Each man has long golden hair that sparkles in the sunlight.
It’s all so fake.
Of course, that might just be jealousy speaking.
After being hunted down for days, I hardly look my best. I wear an old band t-shirt for the Pixies that’s starting to stink of a mix of sweat, dirt and blood. Earlier today, a faerie had slashed a sword through it, leaving a seeping chest wound that dyed the logo a cheerful scarlet. I’d matched the t-shirt with a pair of stonewashed blue jeans that had quickly developed a tear across the right knee. They’re currently caked in mud and bear bloody red fingerprints from where I wiped my hands earlier. On my feet are tatty grey trainers. The left one is slowly and relentlessly losing its sole and I’m wondering if it’ll even last me until I reach the castle. I haven’t looked in a mirror in days and I hope I won’t have to. I have a head wound that’s plastered some of my hair to my skull, and the rest is sticking up as if I’ve been electrocuted. I haven’t shaved in days and the stubble, rather than providing me with a fashionable five o’clock shadow, probably makes me look like an unwashed bum.
I take a breath.
I try to slow my heartbeat.
I tell myself to stay calm.
I’m about to do something either very brave or very stupid. The sleep deprivation is making it quite difficult to tell the difference between the two. I square my shoulders, lift my head, and begin to walk forward.
As I draw closer to the castle, I raise my hands in a gesture of surrender. I can see movement among the guards but I don’t find myself resembling a porcupine, which I take to be a positive sign. I walk slowly and try to project an aura of calm and confidence. Inside I’m a mess of nerves, sure that my plan is going to fail.
When I reach the ornate archway that marks the entrance to the courtyard, I can’t help but flinch in disgust. The carvings in the stone depict several faeries on horseback, elegantly and efficiently hunting down humans. The artist appeared to take great delight in getting the pained expressions of the fairies’ prey just right. The hunters were emotionless, a force of nature that couldn’t be stopped and had no concept of empathy for the hunted.
I steel my nerves and move beyond the archway, into the castle’s expansive courtyard. The king and queen sit upon their golden thrones, right in the centre.
The king and queen of Faerie are regal and detached creatures. The queen wears her jet-black hair pulled atop her head and held with silver wire, encrusted with a sparkling diamond. The bodice of her dress clutches at her upper body, forming a flawless hourglass, while the skirt flows languidly toward the ground in a sea of blood-red velvet. The king has golden hair like his soldiers and, like his soldiers, he wears gleaming silver-coloured armour. He crosses his left ankle over his right knee and props an elbow on the arm of his throne, frowning at me with feral green eyes.
Behind them is Catriona. She has been tied to a wooden cross that rises into the air behind the thrones. For those unfamiliar with their courts, the scene might look decidedly Christian, but the reference would be lost on the fae – the cross was just a practical method for binding those they wished to make an example of.
Catriona is taller than many women, with a slender athletic frame. She has long fiery red hair that falls around her shoulders in thick waves. Her eyes are the colour of the sea, a deep blue-green that draws you into its depths and leaves you to drown. Normally, she wears close fitting shirts, the buttons undone just enough to draw your attention inexorably to the lines of her chest. And her usual deep blue jeans hug her figure in such a way that every man in the room wishes he could divest her of the coarse denim and take its place.
Now though, she wears only a simple white shift dress which stands out against her tanned skin and flaming hair. Her ankles have been strapped together and bound to the vertical beam, while her arms had been splayed out to the sides, tied at the wrists. The skin around her wrists and ankles is raw and red where the rope has burned in her struggle to escape. Her head lolls forward and I’m relieved to see that she has escaped into unconsciousness.
“Why have you come here?” the Queen asks, her voice imperious.
“I came here for Catriona,” I say.
The queen props her head against her hand, looking bored. “She is ours now. The thief will suffer for eternity.”
I pull a small velvet bag from the back pocket of my jeans and empty its contents into my palm. A single milky white pearl lies there, luminescent, its contents swirling within the confines of the sphere.
“I’ll return this to you, for her.”
Inside my head, I can hear Cat screaming to me that I’m going to lose her millions but I’m hoping that she’ll feel her life is worth it. Ahead of me, I can see her head twitch, just for a moment.
The queen jerks upward, looking furious, but the king places a hand on her shoulder.
“It is not that which she stole,” he says.
“It’s not this that you want to punish her for, you mean. This was just your excuse to come after her.”
The queen glares at me. “We will set her free if she returns everything that was taken from our realm.”
Above me, I can see a pair of archers on the battlements, nocking arrows and aiming them at my chest. My heart starts to race. I don’t want to give them what they’re asking for; I’m not even sure if I can. But I know they’ll kill me if our negotiations fail. The reality hits me like a sword sliding into my stomach: I’m standing in the Faerie realm, alone and unarmed, and I don’t know what to do.
I had hoped that they would take the pearl and be done with it; a desperate hope because I wasn’t sure what other options I had that might get us out of this situation alive. I can feel tension gripping my muscles. My breath comes in short gasps.
I look around, searching for a way out.
And then I hear a muffled scream. The two archers suddenly fly off the battlements, hitting the ground with a thud that no one hears because by then there are arrows flying. I can hear the muffled sound of swords clashing within the castle as more traitors reveal their true colours. The king and queen run to the castle proper, screaming for their guards.
I run to Catriona.
The cross is on a pulley system, designed to easily allow someone to be tied to it before it’s raised upward. I lower the cross to the ground, hoping that I won’t be hit by a stray arrow. I don’t even know what started the conflict – are the traitors loyal to us or just lacking loyalty to the current regime? My limbs are trembling, but I try to hide the fear from my eyes.
Catriona is already awake.
“What took you so long?” she breathes.
I untie her and she lets me help her to her feet. She is a little unsteady at first, but then she takes a deep breath and rolls her shoulders. She pulls me into a passionate kiss that leaves me gasping. “Were you actually just going to throw yourself on their mercy? How stupid would that be?”
“Very,” I say honestly. “But I was out of ideas.”
She runs to the fallen archers, dodging arrows with the grace of a gazelle. I follow her and watch as she slides a sword from the dead man’s sheath.
“It’s handy you came along when you did,” she comments. “I’d organised the uprising, but I still hadn’t quite worked out the details of getting off that cross.”
“How the hell did you organise an uprising?” I ask.
She grins. “Oh, you know. A little word here. A little word there. It was easy really.”
“Easy?” I repeat. The fear inside is slowly being replaced by the adrenaline buzz that comes from living in Catriona’s wake. I can feel a smile twitching at my lips. I retrieve a sword of my own. As Catriona takes my hand, I can feel the weariness and pain of the last few days just drifting away.
“Do you still have the pearl?” she asks.
“We should leave the pearl. We don’t need to give them excuses to kill us.”
She makes a face. “They told you themselves that this wasn’t about the pearl.”
“So, that means I can have it.”
She grins again and pulls me into another kiss, pressing her slim body against my dishevelled one. My thoughts desert me and all I can focus on is Catriona.
We can still hear the battle raging within the castle, but already there are guards edging their way towards us. We turn and run towards the archway and towards freedom.
“Wait,” the queen says, stepping out into the courtyard again. “Wait, my son!”
I turn to frown at her, but I say nothing.
“Look what she’s done to you!” she says, concern etched in her features. “You belong here. You belong with us!”
Catriona pulls at my hand. “Come on! We need to get out of here before they set the dogs on us!”
I look back at my mother. She looks almost frail in that moment. Her eyes are wide and hopeful, and she clenches her hands together as if in prayer. But the hope leaves her eyes when she sees that I haven’t let go of Catriona. Her expression turns cold and hard.
“Kill her!” she shouts, to anyone who can hear. “Kill the one who stole him from me!”
I can see pain in her eyes even as she commands her soldiers. My father stands in the shadow of a nearby doorway, watching me with folded arms, his face expressionless. For a moment, I hesitate. But their world is ruthless and lonely. They had tried to have me killed – would rather I was dead than in someone else’s possession. I am their son, but I am also a treasure that they cannot bear to see stolen. I have spent my life locked away in a castle, cossetted, with nothing to live for.
Their world is nothing like Catriona’s. When I’m with her, I feel truly alive.
As I hesitate, Catriona reaches up and touches my cheek. There is passion and vitality in her expression, and I am drawn to it like a moth to the flame.
“Don’t listen to them,” she whispers, her throaty voice igniting my desires.
“I love you,” I say, drowning in her gaze.
She laughs. Her eyes are alive with the frenzy of adrenaline. She grabs my hand and pulls me into a run. My body feels as light as air. We are free. I don’t look back and I find that I don’t want to. We race for the forest – no one is able to stop us. Her uprising has left the court in disarray and only the king and queen even notice our departure.
Catriona Banks whisks me away to the human world, never to return.
She is very good at her job.
OCTOBER 2023 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Caroline Ashley is a clinical psychologist who works for the NHS in Scotland. She was a finalist for Globe Soup's Science Fiction Short Story contest and two of their 7 Day Story Writing Challenges. Caroline is currently posting a serialised young adult fantasy novel on her website and also writes a monthly blog about the psychology within fiction.