Leaving the human realm
Today was her last day as a resident of the human realm. Zoe was moving to Faery.
She looked over the bags she’d packed. Several hung from Rascal’s saddle, balanced either side of his withers. She hefted a large rucksack onto her back.
If she’d forgotten something, it would be easy enough to return, but by evening she planned to be settled in the Sunlight Court. Her nerves sang in anticipation. She’d dreamt of this moment since she first found herself in Faery. Florian had promised her a place to stay. They would see where things went between them.
All her treasures and belongings were packed, including her lyre and everything she could think of to ensure Rascal would be happy there, too. While she dwelled in the mound, he’d need a stable somewhere. Hopefully a solution would reveal itself, amenable to them all.
With a deep breath, she turned to face her family. Ross had warmed a bit to her since she’d returned. His time in Faery had taught him that not everything revolved around him. With any luck, he could turn that round and become a more decent person. As the son of the Sunlight Queen’s favoured human friend, he still had ties to the realm, but no wish to remain there. He headed to university in a year, and who knew what his life would be like then.
“Safe travels.” Ross grinned at her. “Send my love to the queen, and tell Florian I’ll come there to kick his butt if he hurts you.”
Now he acted the over-protective brother she’d never wanted him to be.
She stuck her tongue out. “Don’t forget to put a bowl of milk outside over night. I’ll send a pixie with news when I have any.”
But it wouldn’t be Archie. Her pixie friend had left her for her sister, Tyramona, once they’d completed beating the bounds of the Starlight Court. She missed their constant companionship. Hopefully, they were all thriving now the court was reformed.
Her foster parents, who it turned out were fae as well, hugged her.
“Stay true to yourself,” her foster mother warned. “You are a bright spark. Don’t let the Sunlight Court dim that.”
“Listen to your heart. The little voice inside you will guide you.” A serious tone filled her foster father’s voice.
Her nervousness increased. Why did they both think this would be difficult? She’d stayed in Sunlight before with no problems. Well, once she’d put her first impression behind her, and discounting the ones Ross had caused. Zoe now understood the court’s need for show and the importance of appearance. She had a stock of dresses, and she was certain Florian and his mother would supply her with more. And she’d packed a selection of fabrics and buttons, so her friend Juniper could make more for her.
She forced a smile at them all. “I’m sure it will be fine. I think I have everything, but I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Remember to include us when you send out wedding invitations.” Ross winked.
Zoe blushed. “You’re getting ahead of yourself. No need to talk about weddings yet.” She didn’t want to rush into anything. “I won’t be considered a fae adult for years.”
“Well, you keep that in mind when you’re talking to Prince Florian.” Her foster mother pulled Zoe close. “Now, get going before the sun sets. The fae forest isn’t a good place to be overnight.”
She nodded. “Look after yourselves. I’ll hear from you soon.”
Zoe gripped Rascal’s reins and led him out the gate. He carried too much to add her weight to it. She waved goodbye as she took the path across the fields opposite their house.
Once they were out of view, she sighed. Rolling her shoulders, she tried to rid herself of the feeling of impending doom. She wanted this. Florian waited for her. But the discussion of weddings had thrown her off. She liked him, yes, and maybe they had a future together, but for now, all she wanted was to enjoy spending time with him. No worries about the future. Or annoying brothers to fish out of trouble. Or friends to release from imprisonment. This time it would be just her and Florian. Her insides thrilled at the idea.
Rascal plodded along the path. Neither of them were in a rush. The autumn sun shone, giving all the leaves a golden shine. This was her favourite time of year, when the trees changed colour. Still warm enough to spend time outside, yet with a crisp freshness to the air, which was absent in warmer months.
Mushrooms sprouted in odd, out of the way places. The blue sky glowed bright above, with a handful of clouds scudding across. Rain earlier in the week had softened the ground. No longer rock hard, like it had been the previous few months, it wasn’t wet enough to be permanently muddy, as Zoe knew it would become in another month or two.
A perfect day.
The perfect day to leave the human realm behind and move to Faery. Zoe couldn’t wait to see her fae friends again. Find out how her sister and Linetta were doing, now that Starlight Court was open again. Learn the Fair’s secrets that called to her. Check how Evan faired maintaining the gates. See if he’d recovered from being imprisoned by the Dawnlight Queen.
And Florian… Everything came back to Florian.
They approached Sprite’s Wood, taking the path up to the crest of the hill. Trees shaded both sides, hemming them in. Zoe rubbed her hand along Rascal’s neck. This was it. The gate to the fae realm lay round the corner. Birds chirruped from the trees, leaves rustled in the breeze, and the ground squelched under Rascal’s feet.
Zoe closed her eyes, seeking the space between the realms. She’d travelled through it four times, but this time it eluded her. Things didn’t move places in the human realm, did they? In fae, few things stayed fixed. But here they were. At least they had been before, and no one had told her otherwise. In fact, Evan had referred to this gate as being in the woods, which implied this end of it stayed at same location.
Frowning, she pushed her senses out further. The gate had to be somewhere close by. Evan was working on whatever the problems were in the fae forest. He wouldn’t let this gate fall into disrepair. Not when he expected her to return.
She’d been back in the human realm for a couple of months, attempting to finish her exams, and sort things out so her leaving wouldn’t draw suspicion. There had been no problem with the gate when she left. Time should move more to equality between the two realms as they approached the equinox, but even so it hadn’t been that long, even in Faery. She huffed. Where was the gate?
Had it been closed on purpose? A sign for her to stay in the human realm? But why? She’d never fit in here, even if Ross was nicer to her now. Other students at school had ingrained the habit of taunting her. It wouldn’t change. She couldn’t go back to school, not if there was a life for her in Faery. Besides, she’d met with the Sixth Form Tutor and unregistered herself from the school. Leaving school with only the basic GCSE qualifications wasn’t the ideal choice for most people, but she had other options.
Ones she hadn’t been able to explain to the careers tutor. They wouldn’t believe the tattoo on her arm tied her to the fae fair, where she had earnt her place to trade stories. Or that she had family in the fae realm who needed her. Technically, she was a princess, although that title meant little. She and Rascal could spend their time in the forest, exploring while she worked out what she would do. Who she could be.
If things didn’t work out in Faery, then her exams were good enough she could return and study at the local college. Claim she’d been travelling in an extended gap year. But that wasn’t the way to start. She would to succeed in Faery. Just as soon as she found the gate.
With a deep breath, she released the frustration. The gate had to be here. Stretching out her senses, she searched for the quiver in the air that betrayed where she could pass through.
There it was. Something wasn’t quite right, but she couldn’t deny the gate’s presence. Slightly off to one side of the path, as if it had drifted. She led Rascal towards the vibrations she felt. She kept her eyes closed, relying on the horse to keep her from hitting anything. He pulled back as she led him deeper into the trees, but she pulled him onwards, drawn to the pulsations a few steps ahead.
She felt the shimmer round her as they crossed over. But when she opened her eyes, she wasn’t in Faery, where she’d expected to find herself.
Instead of more trees, with the sense of tamped down danger, as she expected from the fae forest, they found themselves in a far more open area. A few trees stood scattered across the grassy area, but mountains edged the horizon. A large pool of water added a tang of dampness to the air.
Zoe clasped the reins tighter, her eyes searching for anything familiar. “Rascal, I’m glad you’re with me. This isn’t where we were meant to go.” Stretching her senses behind her, she felt nothing.
Spinning round, she confirmed the gate had disappeared. Wherever she was, there was no way back.