When a fairy king grants a human wish, there's more at stake than dreams.
Claire Delaney has a good life, despite her adolescent angst. But she wants more. In a moment of frustration, she wishes to be "the hero." What she actually wants is to be the center of attention, but what she gets is a terrifying Fae king demanding that she rescue an imprisoned fairy, facing fantastical dangers and hardships she could not have imagined. Yet the dreams—and the rescue—are only the beginning of her journey. She is at the center of the king's audacious gamble to end the war that has raged in Faerie for half a century.
C. J. Brightley first came to my attention when she started the noblebright movement: books that are positive and hopeful, the exact polar opposite of the grimdark. I immediately loved the word, and I agree with her about the value of the kinds of stories it describes. Since then, we've been in box sets and anthologies together, and I've found that I love her books. You can read more about the noblebright movement on http://www.noblebright.org. – Emily Martha Sorensen
"Trust me, this tale is unlike any you will have ever read. Persevere and this skillful author will take you deep into the world of faerie. This is far more than a simple quest story."– Amazon Review
When Claire was seven, she had a very strange dream.
Impossibly tall trees towered above her, the sound of their distant rustling like whispers. The air in the dappled shadows was cool and still, broken only by a murmuring of unseen water. Claire looked down at her bare feet, skin pale against the deep green moss covering the earth. Static made her pink nightgown cling to her slim legs.
Where was she?
A fluttering overhead caught her ear, and she looked up, her eyes searching the shadowed branches. Nothing was visible, but the whispering of the leaves seemed to increase ominously. She began walking carefully toward the sound of water, chewing her lip.
What was this place?
Her feet padded on the moss as if it were thick green carpet, soft and cool against her skin. She made her way through sparse brush, the leaves parting before her invitingly.
The sudden cry behind her made her start in fear, and she froze, looking back into the shadows. It was darker, as if the sun had not only disappeared behind a cloud, but descended to the horizon in a matter of moments.
Her heart thudded, and she whimpered a little. Another angry cry gave wings to her feet.
She flew through the brush, tiny twigs and leaves slapping her in the face and across the arms. She glanced behind her once, not sure what she expected to see.
Green eyes glinted in the twilight.
Claire cried out and stumbled when her foot hit a nearly buried rock. She fell headlong, her hands splashing into a pool of water.
"You aren't right. You're not what you're supposed to be!"
Claire looked up to see a boy of about her own age glaring down at her.
"There's a… a…" She pointed helplessly behind her, too terrified to look for the eyes of the creature that had pursued her.
"Yes. A cockatrice." The boy's blue glare intensified. His eyes were rimmed in red, and she had a fleeting thought that perhaps he had been weeping. "You should know better than to wake a sleeping cockatrice." His eyes flicked behind her with a frisson of fear, and he grabbed her shoulder. "Back you go, then." He pushed her into the pool of water, hurrying her deeper while glancing over his shoulder. A final shove sent her flailing, the water closing over her head. Her last glimpse of him was of his silver-white hair plastered down by water, one arm flung up against a beaked maw that struck with cobra-like speed. Claire screamed, water filling her mouth.
She woke, trembling and sweaty, tangled in her blankets.
Nine Years Later
Icy rain gusted into Claire's face a full block before she made it home. She shrieked and ran faster, her backpack lurching awkwardly, the thin soles of her shoes slapping on the wet pavement. Damp tendrils of hair whipped across her face as she fumbled with her key.
She tumbled inside, grumbling about the storm and her wet feet, dripping water across the floor as she strode toward the stairs. "Anyone home?"
Silence answered her.
"It would be too much to ask. 'How was your day, Claire? Happy birthday, Claire! We made you a cake!' Or something, anyway." She scowled into the darkness of the kitchen, blinking in the sudden light as her fingers found the switch. "But no. They're out celebrating something else. Not me. Not on my sixteenth birthday. That would be too much. They probably forgot about it."
A folded piece of paper leaned against the vase of flowers in the middle of the table and she snatched it up, hope briefly lighting in her eyes before dying away. The flowers weren't for her; they'd been there for almost a week and had been for her mother from her father. But the card must be a birthday card!
Claire, we're out for dinner with Dad's clients tonight. I'm pretty sure I told you, but I wasn't sure if you remembered it was today. I'm sorry to miss your birthday, but this is important to your father and we can't miss it. Ethan's spending the night with Nate. There's frozen lasagna you can heat up. We can go out this weekend; you pick the place.
Love you Sweetie,
Claire wiped furious tears from her eyes. "Of course it's important. It's anything but me." She stomped to the freezer and yanked it open, seeing the foil tin of lasagna right on top, just as promised. "I hate lasagna."
She stomped upstairs and into her room, aware but not caring that she left damp footprints across the pale carpet. Scowling, she stripped out of her wet clothes and pulled on flannel pajamas, flopped down on her bed, and buried her face in her pillow. She screamed, muffling the sound not because she didn't want to be heard but because it felt more satisfying somehow. The warm, damp air filtered back onto her face as if in validation of her anger. The sound was louder inside her head than in her ears.
Claire flung the pillow across the room, where it hit the bookcase, dislodging several of her knickknacks. She gave a dramatic groan, then heaved herself off the bed and across the room, where she snatched up the pillow and threw it back onto her bed. She replaced the little resin figurines with more care, checking to make sure they hadn't been damaged.
"Stupid temper. Stupid me. Stupid expecting to be important for once. Stupid birthday. They don't care at all!" Tears streamed down her face. "Stupid me being upset by it! Who cares? It's just Claire. No one important. No one that matters." A pain in her hand made her glance down to find she was clenching a little resin fairy so hard that one of the wings had snapped, a jagged point digging into the soft flesh of her palm. "Stupid breakable fairies. I wish…"
A breath of air across the back of her neck made her shiver suddenly. She glared at the fairy figurine and put it back on the shelf with unnecessary force.
Claire, you're being ridiculous. Mom told you about dinner two days ago. She sighed and stood up, shivering as her wet hair slithered inside her collar. Maybe a hot shower would improve her mood.
* * *
Half an hour later, she slouched downstairs. She'd piled her dark hair in a messy heap on top of her head and clipped it, hoping for curls the next day, but she knew it wouldn't work. It never worked.
She stared disconsolately at the frozen lasagna and groaned. "I still hate lasagna." Instead, she pulled a box of cookies from the pantry and ate five of them, washing them down with a glass of milk. Then, feeling vaguely guilty, she picked up an apple and crunched on it as she wandered back upstairs.
Claire didn't have much homework, just a few problem sets for Intro to Physics and a section of reading for her Shakespeare class. She glared at it half-heartedly.
I hate being a teenager. I hate my temper.
Rain beat against the window, angry drops that matched her mood.
A crack of lightning made her jump. She stepped toward the window and looked out into the furious darkness. The streetlight near the end of the driveway glowed weakly through sheets of rain. The maple by the corner of the house whipped in the wind. There would be broken branches to clean up tomorrow.
She tossed the little paperback copy of Romeo and Juliet at her still-wet backpack and sniffled. "I don't know what Juliet's problem was. At least someone loved her!" She snorted. "Ok, Claire, even you know that's ridiculous." She glanced across the room at the little fairy figurines lined up along one shelf. She had a whole shelf of tiny fairies, resin and pewter and crystal, all different shapes and sizes. The shelf above it had other fantastical creatures: several unicorns of various colors and materials, a tiny pewter knight in shining armor, a variety of little goblins and gnomes with expressions ranging from sweet curiosity to diabolical mischief, a crystal griffin, a sphinx carved of blonde wood, and others.
"I wish…" The hair on the back of her neck stood up, and she shuddered. She looked around, with the suddenly uncomfortable sense of being under scrutiny. "That's stupid. There's nothing here."
She brushed her teeth and went to bed, snuggling with the ragged bear she'd loved since childhood. She knew it was silly; on her sixteenth birthday, she should be willing to go to bed without a stuffed toy. But tonight she felt lonely and sad. Abandoned. The anger faded, leaving only a childish grief and a longing for someone, anyone, to make her feel important.
As always, she told herself stories as she fell asleep, stories of fantastic adventure and extraordinary heroism. She was always the heroine, of course, brave and steadfast in the face of whatever phantasms her mind could conjure. Last summer she'd researched dreams, and she suspected she didn't really dream of adventure at all. Only the stories she told herself were adventurous, not the dreams themselves. Her dreams were quite ordinary, just disconnected images, fears, and memories of her perfectly boring life. Showing up at school only to find herself naked. Getting a D on her trigonometry test. The cute boy in English class laughing at her.
Yet in the stories she told herself, she was important. Sometimes beloved, sometimes shunned (always unjustly), but always important. She made her own way, carving out a place for herself among the heroes of whatever land she imagined. Often, she was a princess because they were her stories and she wanted to be a princess. Sometimes, she was a common heroine, courageously standing against whatever danger threatened some helpless innocent. In her imaginary adventures, she focused on the dramatic climax and the triumphant aftermath, defying the villain with brilliant words and acts of valor, earning the accolades of her adoring subjects. She was always beautiful; her hair curled in perfect ringlets, sometimes blonde, sometimes dark. Never was her hair as it was in reality, a medium brown with waves but no curls.
This night she imagined a castle, neglected but still beautiful, all white stone with intricate arches casting shadows in the dying evening light. Perhaps the windows used to hold stained glass, but they were empty now, a cool wind curling softly around the worn stones, carrying a few dried leaves through the deserted courtyard.
She murmured into her pillow, "I wish… I wish I could be the hero."
Her window slammed open, wind howling inside with a flurry of rain. Claire shrieked, clapping her hands over her ears as she fought free of the covers.
Terror made her heart stutter.
A shadow stood between her and the window. It stepped forward, and in the strobe-like flash of lightning she saw his face.
He waved a hand, and the window closed behind him, the storm suddenly muffled.
With trembling fingers she flipped on her bedside lamp.
He tilted his head and looked at her, a faint, toothy smile lifting his lips. His clothes might have been leather, thick and dark, with a faint, unsettling texture across his chest. Tight, dark breeches were tucked into black boots. His hands were gloved in a similar dark material. His cloak (who wears a cloak?) swirled and settled behind him, the edges ragged, made of feathers or perhaps tattered cloth. The exaggerated collar spread around his angular face, making it appear narrower and paler. High, sharp cheekbones caught the light below glittering eyes of an indistinct color, blue and gold and silver all at once. His hair was long and white blonde; it stuck straight out and up from his head, unaffected by gravity, fine as dandelion fluff.
He let her study him, his smile widening slowly as he watched her fear rise until it nearly choked her.
"Come." He held out a gloved hand to her so dark it seemed to suck in the light around it.
Her breath squeaked, and she gasped, "Who are you?"
His teeth gleamed, sharp and predatory. "Your villain."