Duty was all that mattered. Until he met her.
Thora has known only life on one side of the fence, sheltered in a village of half-breeds, free of the magic the witches and Fae crave. Yet, past the fence, the woods tempt her to discover what lies beyond the village. Nothing prepared her for what she’d find on the other side.
As a descendant to the Fae Queen Tatiana, Garrett has devoted his life to protecting the breeds. When he finds Thora in the woods, he promises her a new life in the Council run Sanctuary, safe from those who would abuse her. But the Sanctuary holds dark secrets, and the haven Garrett promised is far more dangerous than the woods. As they work to unravel the deception of the Council, passion and duty collide, threatening the very lives Garrett swore to protect.
Garrett knew sacrifices would need to be made, he just never realized it could be the woman he’s claimed as his.
In the world of Isa Fae, magic is both life source and currency, and running out of magic means certain death. But once a nuclear war renders Earth uninhabitable, the Fae’s primary source of energy is cut off. With the stores of magic dwindling, and no access to the human world to get more, the Fae must find new ways to distribute magic and protect what little they have. But when the factions can’t agree on how to move forward and secede from one another, it leaves each to be represented by their own leaders and ruled by their own laws.
What lengths will each faction be willing to go to survive? And what price will survivors from Earth pay to be a part of their new world?
There is a place not far from here
Over the hill and beyond the fence
A brilliant wood of wondrous things
But if you linger, beyond your welcome
You may find behind the beauty
A darkness tears your soul apart
Sheltered by the awe
Hopelessness and grief do dwell
Only the brave will find within
The beauty of the wood
Toes burrowed deep in the soft grass, Thora leaned back in the wooden chair perched in the middle of the small fenced yard. In the distance, the hill blocked the woods that called to her.
Her sister, Britta, dragged a brush through her long hair, and Thora winced at the sharp tug as it caught on her blonde curls. Such a painful sacrifice for sisterly love. If she hadn’t already made up her mind about what she was going to do once Britta joined Mother in the market, Thora wouldn’t have sat so long.
“You’re quiet today, Thora.” Britta put the brush down and began parting the older girl’s hair into sections for the braid she’d promised.
“I have much on my mind,” Thora said, glad Britta couldn’t see her face.
“You’re going in, aren’t you?”
Thora twisted around to look at her. Britta was the image of their mother. Tall and lanky, with flowing brown hair, she would be a beauty when she grew up.
“I won’t tell Mother,” Britta reassured her. “I think she knows, though. We’ve both seen you watching the hill as if you can see straight through it to the trees.”
To answer her sister would make it too final. Telling Britta what she planned would mean she couldn’t turn back if fear took her before she passed over the fence.
“Are you finished?” Thora asked.
“Ribbon,” Britta demanded, and Thora handed her the bright red material. Britta tied off the end of the braid and laid it over Thora’s shoulder. “You’ll stay and marry Frederick then?”
“No, you won’t stay? Or no, you won’t marry him?”
Thora stood and tossed the braid so it hung down her back; she had little hope it would stay confined for long. “Go pull the clothes from the line and put them up.”
Britta groaned. “Must I?”
“It’s that, or peel the potatoes for dinner.”
Thora smiled as Britta took off running before she’d even finished. Britta may have hated chores, but she hated them more when they involved the kitchen.
“Good day, Thora.”
She glanced toward the road and saw Frederick trudging along the dusty path.
“Must you always be so formal, Freddie?”
“Mother says a gentleman is always polite when calling on a lady.”
She barely kept herself from laughing at his words. She could almost hear his mother reciting the words while slicking down his cowlick each morning.
“Will you walk with me?” he asked. His arm swung wide and, though Thora knew he didn’t realize it, he motioned to the hill.
Her heart stuttered. “Yes.”
“Do you want to put your boots on?”
“No.” If she hesitated, she would change her mind. Her feet carried her from the yard, and the gate banged closed behind her. She slowed her pace for Frederick to join her.
Britta came from behind the house. “Thora?”
“I am going for a walk with Frederick.” Thora stared at her, wishing she could tell her sister her plans, but Britta already knew, and any explanation Thora gave would be meaningless. “Peel potatoes for dinner. Make sure you soak them in the pot with a bit of salt.”
Frederick scoffed. “Of course she’ll be safe, Britta. We are only going for a stroll.”
They both ignored him.
“I will,” Thora said.
What Thora loved most about Britta was her ability to accept. When their father didn’t return, Britta accepted he was gone forever. She didn’t dream of ways to rescue him as Thora did. If Britta were the one leaving, Thora would argue and plead with her to stay. But Britta was not Thora, and Thora was thankful, because she didn’t know what she would do if Britta asked her not to go.
Frederick prattled on about the harvest, and seemed unaware that Thora paid him no mind. Much like he paid no attention to where they were going.
At first, they walked along the bottom of the hill then Thora angled them so they crept up the side, but that took too long, and patience was not one of her virtues. She gave up on subtly and moved directly up the hill. Frederick stopped talking, or maybe she stopped hearing. When she reached the top, she glanced back at him. As usual, he struggled to keep up, huffing and puffing like the wolf in the tale Mother told her as a child.
Frederick was fat. His mother called him brawny, and Thora’s referred to him as husky. He liked to say he was thick. Really, he was just fat. A roll of skin hung below his shirt, billowing over the top of his pants. Perhaps if he wore proper sized clothing it wouldn’t be so noticeable, but his mother had chosen to force him in to his father’s old garments.
“Thora,” Frederick gasped, coming to a stop beside her. He hunched over and rested his hands on his knees. She suspected he was about to void his stomach and shifted a foot away. He looked up at her. “Where are you going?”
Her eyes rolled. Frederick knew where she was going. He just didn’t want to know. Frederick would be most content if she were to suddenly decide that her heart’s desire was to spend her days basking in his love and birthing little Fredericks for years to come.
She spun around to stare back at the village. Her soft flowing skirt swished about her ankles, teasing her bare toes. The small cottages blended in to the countryside, their thatched roofs the same golden yellow of the swaying wheat blanketing the fields around them. Smoke snaked from the chimneys in to the darkening sky. Even the vibrant yellow-orange horizon did little to entice her back there.
The hill was the highest point for miles. From there, a person could see the one road leading away from town. It wound a crooked path through the fields, vanishing in to the flatlands beyond. Gazing upon the land, it was hard to believe that behind her was a full and vibrant wood.
“It’s forbidden, Thora. If you go in there, I can’t protect you.” Frederick laid his hand on her arm. If he weren’t her best and only friend, she would have shrugged it off.
Thora turned to the trees. They were a mix of life. Mother said some of them came from the human world, brought there when the Fae first allowed the humans through the veil. Father would always laugh and say it was not the wheat and trees the Fae had wanted. It was the humans.
Before the humans killed their world with their guns and bombs, the Fae freely crossed through the veil and in to the other realm to replenish their atern, the energy force that gave them life, through the simple touch of a human. As Earth fell, the Fae were desperate to preserve their energy source.
The Neraida Faction had gladly joined the rescue operations of those who remained. The Fae lowered the veil and granted access to the last of the humans in the area. It wasn’t until the passage had been sealed that the Fae learned the truth about the humans they rescued—passing through the veil had turned them to witches. Every last one of them. And they were completely useless to the Fae.
That was when death entered the realm and brought an endless winter, dividing the world into factions scattered across the land. The Neraida Fae Council erected dome barriers around certain parts of their land such as the one Thora’s family lived in.
She knew little of the Faction outside her village. There were tales of travelers passing through the frozen lands and protected tunnels to enter different domes, but in their village, few ventured anywhere other than the next house down the lane.
Except those who entered the woods.
Those like Thora’s father.
At the bottom of the hill, a fence spanned for miles in either direction. Made from solid oak, years of harsh winds and rains had left it ragged and barely standing. Yet, still, it continued to keep the woods from invading.
Beyond the forest was the shield that separated their section of Neraida from the vast, frozen outer regions between them and the next dome. Thora’s father had helped set up the fence, and had been the one to plant the first of the trees. He said it was to hide the devastation that had turned their once beautiful world to an icy land, but Frederick’s mother said it was to protect them from the others, though she never spoke of who those others were. Perhaps she was speaking of those who lived in the Capital dome.
Whatever the reason, the trees took root, and as the magic of the Fae realm entered them, they gradually took over the land, pushing the village back as the woods slowly consumed the land. Now they took all who entered their canopied maze.
She’d heard stories that somewhere in the depth of the wood, the shield had pulled back and life in the outer regions had begun anew. That was why she was there. She needed to know if the tales were true—if something hid within the trees or beyond.
There was always talk from the village council of repairing it, but the townspeople didn’t have the resources. Rebuilding a wooden fence was difficult when the trees were what you were trying to keep out.
Using metal had been discussed, but the scarcity of the human material was too great. Frederick’s father had sent a missive to the Fae Council for help, but when he mentioned the forest, they’d refused.
A few yards beyond the fence was the first line of trees, parallel to the fence, making one believe the fence had been built along the tree line. Thora knew different. With each passing year, the trees creep closer, closing in on the hill. The weeping willows led the way. Their long branches sagging to the patchy grass beneath them, swaying along the ground. Behind them, she saw the massive oaks and elms that grew together in ways Mother said they never should.
“Are you listening, Thora?” Frederick said. “You can’t go in there.”
“I need to, Frederick.”
“No; you don’t.”
“Fine. Then I want to.” A few wayward tendrils of hair fluttered across her check, and she tucked them behind her ears. “Don’t you want to know what’s in there? To know if the stories are true?”
“No. There’s nothing in there, Thora.”
Sweat glistened on his freckled brow.
She dropped her sack to the ground, pulled out her sandals, and slipped them on. They weren’t as comfortable as her ankle boots, but Mother would have questioned her if she’d put those in her bag that morning.
“Then why is it forbidden? Why the fence? Why does no one ever return?”
“Don’t you mean, why hasn’t your father returned? Or Darrian?” Frederick pursed his lips into a smug smile, and she wondered why she continued being his friend. Then she remembered there was no one else her age in the village.
She and Freddie were both twenty-two, and at seventeen, Britta was the closest to their age. There had been another, Darrian, but he had gone into the woods not long after his father’s soul star rose to the night sky.
“My father is dead, as is Darrian.”
The words were a familiar lie that had passed her lips many times. Though, as she gazed upon the wood, she was unsure if it was a lie. Frederick was right. No one had ever returned. But something was alive in there. Could those who disappeared be in there awaiting rescue?
“Please. Come back with me.” Frederick’s hand turned gentle. She hated for him to beg, but nothing would deter her.
“I have to do this. It is more than just my father or Darrian. You’ve seen the trees move. You know it is only a matter of time before they swallow the fence, the hill, the village. There is nowhere for us to go. You know the forest encircles us. It will come eventually, and I refuse to live in fear.” She swallowed thickly.
She was afraid. But fear was not what she wanted to rule her existence. Yet that was what would consume her if she went back to the village and pretended her father was dead, and that the grave they visited every week held something other than his favorite cap.
“Will you come with me?” she asked Frederick.
“My mother…” His excuse trailed off.
Was she wrong to view him as weak? She didn’t think so. He was weak, and she played upon it. “Frederick, you say you love me. Don’t make me go alone.”
His face whitened. He was a ghost of the red-faced boy who once chased her through the fields. “I’ll go with you to the edge.”
He slid his hand in to hers and entwined their fingers. Guilt slithered through Thora. She shouldn’t lead him on.
They walked down together, traveling at an angle so as not to slip. That side of the hill was much steeper. When they reached the fence, she tugged on the top board, and one side fell loose of the nail holding it in. She dropped it, and they climbed over.
Excitement gathered in Thora, tensing her muscles in a delicious energy. She inched closer to the trees, pulling at Frederick’s hold on her as he hesitated before finally giving in.
The trees were thicker than they looked from a distance. The trunks of the weeping willows were covered with a vibrant green moss that shimmered as the last rays of sun hit it. Thora shook her head and stared deeper in to the wood. Behind the willows, it was near black, and she could just make out the trunks of the oak trees.
“Did you bring the lantern?” she asked.
“No. I didn’t think we’d need it. I never thought you’d be foolish enough to do something like this.”
“Me? Foolish? Don’t you mean we? You are here with me.”
“Can we not come back tomorrow?” Frederick suggested. “Perhaps in the morning, when there is more light.”
It would make sense, but common sense was not what filled her. She could feel them in there. Her father and Darrian. They were waiting for help. For her.
“Let’s go just a bit further.” She turned her pale green eyes on her friend, knowing he would agree then smiled as he took a step forward. “Just past the first tree.”
They moved together, sweeping aside the dangling branches of a weeping willow. As they passed through its canopy, a flash of light drew Thora’s eyes.
She pointed in the direction of the light. “Did you see that?”
She leaned forward, straining for another glimpse. The flash came again, its intensity lighting up the space before them in a pale pink glow.
“We should go,” Frederick said, his hand tightening on hers.
“Not yet. Please, just to the other side of the tree.”
There was the light again, and for just a moment she thought she saw the shape of a person within the fading light.
“Thora, this isn’t safe. We need to leave.”
Terror trembled through his voice, and when she looked at him, regret pooled within her. He was petrified, and it was her fault. She should not have brought him. She’d been wrong to push him in to this. The wood was her adventure. Her destiny.
“You’re right, Freddie,” she said, using his nickname so he’d know she wasn’t angry. “Let’s go.”
Her scream trilled through the air as her feet were yanked from beneath her. Frederick’s hand was ripped from hers as she fell to her back. The branches of the weeping willow had torn them apart.
“Thora!” Frederick’s cry echoed around her, but she couldn’t see him as she was dragged across the cold ground.
Twisting on to her belly, Thora grabbed frantically at the sparse patches of grass she passed. Her eyes squeezed shut at the sting of the dirt puffing up to her face. Around her waist, her skirt bunched and rocks scraped the bare skin of her legs.
As suddenly as she’d been snatched, she was released. The weeping willow branches gone, she gasped for breath, and the pain of every scratch was a stinging reminder that she was alive. Her eyes opened and she glanced around, but in the unnatural darkness, she couldn’t even see her hand in front of her face. She struggled to her feet and spun in a circle, but the wood was not her friend and shielded the pale moonlight from her.
“Frederick! Where are you?” she screamed, panic setting in. How could she have been so stupid? She should have listened to Frederick. To her mother. “Frederick!”
She nearly collapsed in relief at the sound of his voice. Staggering in his direction, she called his name repeatedly and used his return cries to guide her through the throng of trees. She fell over something and caught herself with her hands. A sliver of light revealed Frederick sitting against a tree. Thora scrambled up and ran to him.
“Oh, Freddie. I am so sorry. You were right.” She cried, falling to her knees, and dropped her head to his soft chest.
“Thora,” he said, and she loved how soft her name was on his lips. She was wrong to judge him only from the outside. Frederick was a good boy. A good man. It didn’t matter if his belly jiggled like the special jelly her grandmother used to make.
“Let’s go home,” Thora whispered, and took his hand. It lay limp in hers, and she worried he had finally had enough of her. “Freddie, I really am sorry.”
“Thora, you need to go home.”
“I know. Let’s go.” She started to rise, but he didn’t move.
“No. You need to go. I will stay here.” He was scared, as was she, yet there was something more in his voice that made her think she didn’t truly understand fear yet.
“What are you talking about?” She used her free hand to turn his face toward her. It was heavy in her palm. Dread crawled within her veins.
“You need to go without me,” he said, wheezing.
“Why would I do that?”
“I…I cannot move.”
“What? Did you break your leg?” She let go of him and ran her hands along his legs, but felt no break. She looked back up at him, his head flopped forward, chin pressed to his shoulder at an awkward angle. His eyes, though, were focused on her. Bile gathered in her throat. “Oh, Freddie. What have I done?”
She gathered his face in her hands and let her thumbs wipe away the tears sliding down his chubby cheeks. There was nothing for her to do. No one would enter the forest. Even if she got him out of the woods and over the hill, there were no doctors in the village, and with the use of magic forbidden there was no hope for him.
The darkness sheltered them, and she could no longer make out the shape of his face. She leaned in to him, resting her forehead against his. Then a burst of purple light flared around them, and the leaves began a steady rustling. A twig snapped to her left, and in the fading purple glow, she met Frederick’s eyes. There was something out there.
“You must leave. You need to get out of here. Tell my mother what happened to me,” he whispered.
“I’m not leaving you.” She pressed her lips to his, needing him to feel her despair at what she’d done. To know the love she had for him. Even if it was not the love he wished for, it was all she had to give him.
“You don’t have a choice,” he said. “There is no way you can carry me, or even drag me.”
A sob escaped Thora, and she brushed her lips against his again. She trembled, though not from the pleasure she once imagined from her first kiss. More twigs snapped in every direction, and she gazed desperately in to the pitch-blackness. Lights exploded around them, and the sudden brightness made it impossible to see anything except the brilliant colors.
Frederick, though, saw something. Something that caught his breath and brought pure terror to his eyes.
“Run, Thora. Run!”
The silence scared her more than the dark. Even in the dead of night, she had always been comforted by the sounds of her parents and sister surrounding her. Soft snores and muffled words whispered in dreams had never been more missed than in that moment.
When the flashing lights had long faded, Thora crouched beside a tree trunk. The rough bark scraped at her face, but she continued to rub against it, needing to feel something to assure her that she existed. That the world around her existed.
Eyes pressed tightly closed, she created the illusion that she controlled the darkness. Behind her eyelids, she saw a remembrance of light, of the sun glinting off the roof of the old tractor that sat rusting in the field behind their house. Britta and Frederick sat on a blanket, a picnic spread before them, their waving hands calling her over. That was the day she knew Frederick loved her in a way she would never be able to return. That was the day she realized she needed to search for her father within the wood.
Moving her face along the bark again, guilt seeped through her. Frederick would never return home, and Britta would be left forever wondering what happened to her older sister.