Summer of Faerie: “The Decision” by Loren Warnemuende

August is hot. Humidity hangs heavy in the air and (some mornings) paints fog on the windows. The leaves have darkened from their fresh spring green and hang limp, shriveled. I’m writing this while sitting on the back porch steps, my feet on the dusty earth and brittle grass, as our golden retriever sits in the middle of a lawn chewing a stick. Crickets murmur in the woods. Just now, though, a cool wind just came running through the tree canopy with that delicious rustling sound like running water.

My Faerie research has lapsed (somewhat) as I work through summer reading for St. Andrews. On our Montana trip, however, I read Charlotte E. English’s delightful Faerie Fruit, a tale with shades of Eden, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” and C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew mixed in with small-town intrigue and told with enchanting prose. The first section was my favorite, but the whole story was a fascinating look at food and eating in Faerie (a branch of study I need to examine further), community and friendship, self-control and desire, love and choices.

This week’s Summer of Faerie post also concerns choice and desire. Loren Warnemuende, who wrote a retelling of “King Thrushbeard” earlier this summer, also contributed an excerpt from her manuscript, Exile. It’s the first book in a trilogy named Daughter of Arden which retells the Grimm Brothers’ tale of “Maid Maleen.” I’ve had the privilege of reading some of the first drafts of the series, and it’s marvelous – rich, exotic, compelling, and gripping at every turn. I hope to see them in print someday. Enjoy!

The Decision

by Loren Warnemuende

Cathedral interior
Photo credit: Loren Warnemuende

“Her Royal Highness, the Princess Maleen!” Minister Gooldon boomed. Echoes reverberated through the Hall, up against the arched stone ceiling and down across the glimmering windows.

 At the front of the Hall King Darrick rose, and the assembly turned toward the center where Maleen must walk. She swallowed. There were so many people watching. Three days before she had stood here alone with her father when he had given her the incomprehensible choice—marriage to Prince Jared of Dranneth, or sojourn in a tower. He said the tower was the only alternative to the marriage, and both were to keep her safe from the looming war with the barbarous Kalomenn. Maleen had begged him to consider other options—if only he would consider Prince Melanor of Pandor, the one she loved, who loved her!—but the king wouldn’t bend and now she had to announce her decision.

Maleen took a deep breath, fixed her eyes on her father, and swept toward him. Colors swirled along her sides and the path moved on and on. She felt she traversed the history woven into each of the tapestries lining the walls, back to the dawn of Arden. At last she reached the steps of the dais. King Darrick stepped down to meet her and took her hands in his.

They stood, brown eyes to brown. She did not speak, and tried not to look down, forcing her face to give no signs of her turmoil. The hush in the Hall was almost unbearable.

“And so, Maleen?”

His words were soft, but they permeated her being and flowed through the Hall. Maleen lifted her chin, but her gaze dropped.

“I choose the tower,” she said, and the weight of the stone pressed in around her. But it was the only option that would give Melanor enough time to come for her.

The king gripped her hands tightly and a chatter of voices rattled like tossed pebbles through the Hall behind her. The king’s hold loosened, and he sighed deeply. He stepped up to his throne, leading Maleen to her delicate copy of his massive seat before he sat down. He motioned to a guard who stood by the council chamber door. The guard stepped within, then emerged followed by a man and a woman. They approached the dais and bowed deeply to the princess and the king.

“Princess Maleen,” King Darrick said, “I would like you to meet Sage Granimor and Dame Marietta. Granimor, as you know, will build the tower.”

Maleen nodded in acknowledgment toward the man with the wind-grained face and bulky shoulders. The man’s frame seemed out of place in the ornate hall.

“I am honored to see to your safety, Princess,” Granimor stated, looking at her with piercing blue eyes. He carried his authority as a sage like a mantle. Maleen wondered how honored the man really felt for Granimor revealed nothing.

“And this,” Darrick continued, “is Dame Marietta, who will join you in the tower.”

Maleen jerked her head toward her father, then turned her full stare onto the woman before her. Someone to accompany her? The thought had not crossed her mind! She assumed she was in this on her own—how could her father impose such a fate on anyone else? Then she realized her father would never force someone to join her. But who would come willingly? Not, of course, Maleen reminded herself, that they would actually enter the tower, but what if…. No, the idea was unthinkable.

The woman stood quietly before her and Maleen wondered what far corner of the castle she had been found in. Her hair, dark brown except for some gray at her ears, was pulled back loosely from her tanned face. She, too, had keen blue eyes that were fixed steadily on the princess, and her mouth was firm, but not tight. A blue sash tied the waist of her brown linen gown and her back was straight.

She stepped onto the first step of the dais and took Maleen’s smooth hands into her rough ones. Her eyes were now level with Maleen’s.

“I am looking forward to serving you again,” she said smiling. Her voice was low and rich. 

Maleen gaped openly at the woman now. She was sure she had never laid eyes on her, and yet this peasant had the audacity to take her sovereign’s hand. Maleen closed her mouth, smoothed her face, and drew her hands away. Marietta, unperturbed, nodded slightly and stepped back to the foot of the dais.

Maleen saw her father frown faintly before he turned to her.

“Marietta has been a faithful member of this household since before you were born,” King Darrick explained. “She has worked in the library and kitchens, but it was she who nursed you your first two years.”

“Oh.” Maleen had no other words. She knew someone must have nursed her after her mother died, but no one ever said who. She’d never thought to ask. She stared again at this quiet woman who smiled at her with peaceful assurance.

The king waved his hand at the enigmatical pair, and with another bow they retreated to the council chamber. Maleen couldn’t take her eyes from the door where they exited. The rest of the Hall no longer existed.

Her father spoke beside her. “My dear, I hope you will continue your regular activities until the tower is built. It will be some months before it is complete.”

Maleen tore her eyes from the door but focused on her hands and didn’t look toward him.

“Yes Father, of course.”

He coughed slightly, and stood. She looked up into his face, trying to put away any feeling. The sight of his sad eyes, brows crumpled, and mouth compressed was too much for her. She stood quickly so she could avoid looking into his face again.

 “You may go now,” the king said, his voice low. And then, “I will try to call you in more frequently, my child.”

 “I—I thank you,” Maleen stammered blankly. She turned and stepped down the dais, moving toward the distant open doors, willing herself to remain calm and poised. She must be stalwart before her people. What would they think if she broke down now? And how could she let her father see how she felt? Let him show his pain! He should be anguished over sending his only heir and daughter into a prison. Besides, she thought, there’s no need for tears or tantrums! Melanor will come and take me away, far away, from all these people who pity me. She raised her chin again and left the hall with swift, unfaltering steps.

 She had expected her ladies would follow. They had said they would stand behind her, and she thought they’d want to be there, if only for the purpose of scrutinizing her initial reactions. She had looked forward to venting her frustration onto them. But no one followed, and when Maleen reached the bottom of the Hall stairs she realized she was alone save the stony sentinels of the King’s Elite. She caught her breath, forcing down an unexpected lump in her throat, then conversely welcomed the rushing wave of relief that she was alone. 

 Maleen strode toward Ramia’s Garden, thankful there would be no unwanted company at this time of year. She wandered the paths in silence, trying to think only of the muted colors of winter. Eventually she settled onto a stone bench hidden in the rose arbor and wrapped her arms about herself to ward off the evening chill. 

No roses bloomed, but the branches entwined the trellises, providing shelter from the cool winter breezes and possible prying eyes. The sun slipped behind the castle wall, but its ambient light cast a soft glow over everything. Maleen sat, drinking in the quiet, pushing thoughts away. Her eyes wandered, settling eventually on the brown stone of the Akklesia visible over the gardens. This building, a place of worship to the Mighty One, had stood for centuries here in Ardenay. It was a symbol of hope for the people—a center. It was only a small Akklesia, structured for the worship of castle inhabitants. Every castle and large town in the country had an Akklesia, most far more grand than this. But this one was significant because it was the first. Arden’s first king and queen had built it with their own sweat and blood, forging a core for their young kingdom. It was they who lit the first Light, the eternal flame that burned on a pedestal in the Akklesia, representing the Mighty One’s constant presence.

 And what was the Mighty One’s perspective on Maleen’s situation now? Wasn’t he worshipped and honored because he protected his chosen people? Maleen was from the line of Arden’s kings and queens—the blood of the firsts flowed through her. Why didn’t the One Who Saves reach down and change her situation now? Why had he even let it occur?

No voice answered her questions; she hadn’t expected one. Instead the clear tones of the Akklesia choral girls rose, singing their evening hymn of praise. The single line of notes climbed sweetly into the clean air, dragging with it the lump lodged in Maleen’s chest. It rose into her throat and then mouth, and with it came the tears she had repressed so fiercely. A final ray of the sun lanced over the castle wall catching the roof of the Akklesia, and the water in Maleen’s eyes magnified it so it seemed to ignite and consume the building, annihilating hope. Without further care for appearances, Maleen lowered her head and sobbed.

Loren Warnemuende

When she was in fourth grade, Loren won a story-writing contest and decided that she’d grow up to be a writer. Since then God has led her into many roles including wife to her Renaissance man, Kraig, and mom and teacher to their three kids. Loren also teaches Worldview and Bible to high schoolers in a homeschool co-op, and adults at church. Through all these roles writing has been a source of hope and a way to share the stories and big ideas that fill her mind and heart. Loren lived most of her life in Michigan, but now calls East Texas home. You can find more of her sporadic writing on her blog Willing, Wanting, Waiting…..

Summer of Faerie: “True to Me” and a Scottish Tale

Mountains at sunset on a lake

After some amazing contributions to the Summer of Faerie project by AJ Vanderhorst, Matthew Cyr, Loren Warnemuende, Rachel Donahue, Emma Fox, Rachel Greco, and William Stark, here is my own Faerie story for the summer. I wanted to do a retelling of one of my favorite tales – “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” or “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” – but a different, darker story called out to me this time. 

I first read about the “Two Sisters” or “Cruel Sister” ballad in Patricia Wrede’s Book of Enchantments; she did a retelling with her own spin on it, so my story is as much a retelling of hers as it is of the original tale. It’s actually a troubling, gruesome story, technically a cautionary tale instead of a fairy tale (according to Angelina Stanford, fairy tales have happy endings by definition), but I felt drawn to it by fascinated horror, sadness, and a desire to reshape it. You can read about the ballad itself and its many versions in this article. I used this version of the ballad sung by Peggy Seeger. I also threw in some research about Scottish Fae and superstitions.

Along with this tale, I have Scottish news. After about five years of waiting, praying, planning, scheming, saving, and doing a lot of paperwork, I’m going to St. Andrews University in Scotland to study for a Master’s degree in Theology and the Arts. The program will let me explore the curious, wondrous region between faith and human creation: how does theology relate to art, and art to theology? How do artists-who-are-Christians integrate what they believe with what they create? 

Most of my applications went to literature programs, and I was torn between this degree and one that focused more on the English-major topics I love. I meditated on the decision one bright, chilly morning in April, sitting on the black, red, blue, and gold rug in our front hall and petting our golden retriever as the sun streamed in. The choice came with a surge of joy: I felt that this program would best equip me to use my gifts for the Kingdom of God, to figure out how my writing can be an act of worship.

I have dreamed of going to grad school to study further since college and through various office jobs in a green farm town, silver seaport, and tinted-glass greenhouse. In those years of waiting, I often let myself sink into social media envy (a cliche of our age, I know): envying Facebook friends and Instagram profiles for their exotic vacations, gorgeous weddings, or grad school achievements. Now that I have a life event that looks good on social media, I feel shy.

This coming year is a divine gift, splendidly undeserved. It’s also the product of some hard and unglamorous work, like long periods of loneliness, bumbling through grad school research and applications, international wire transfers, and visa paperwork. Becoming a grad student is a fairy tale written just as much with stress and effort as beauty and adventure. And I’m so, so thankful for it. 

Anyway, here’s my story. Enjoy! 

True to Me

Seashore

Our backyard was dim with dusk. The harbor’s salty breeze mingled with the smell of scallops and haddock grilling on the patio.

My older sister Eara’s navy dress smelled faintly musty after 11 months in her closet. It fluttered around me as I rushed down the stairs to the rehearsal dinner laid out on the patio, carrying a flat package.

My oldest sister, Aileen, sat with her fiancé, Mike, a tall man with dark brown skin, broad shoulders, and gold-rimmed glasses. Aileen leaned forward to let him whisper something in her ear. A wave of her dark hair fell onto the shoulder of her green dress. Her expression relaxed into a quick smile before resuming its concentration.

Don’t forget to smile, I remember Eara telling Aileen years ago, before Aileen’s first violin recital. Your concentrating face is kind of scary.

My nervous smile is scarier, Aileen had said.

I looked up at the trees; my little cousins, the other bridesmaids, and I had had a hard scramble to string the golden fairy lights up there, but the looping pattern matched my concept sketches exactly. They completed the atmosphere I wanted: warm, bright, and safe.

You’re quite the Maid of Honor, my mom had said when we finished the lights.

Eara would have been chill about it, I said. But at least I can make things look nice.

Turning to the gift table, I put my package with the other presents: a watercolor painting I’d done of a sailboat on this very harbor, with the land in turquoise and the sail a vibrant orange.

My temples ached with exhaustion; I hadn’t slept through the night in months. Dreams of the pale sun glimmering from underwater and golden hair rippling in a current interrupted my sleep. In waking hours, I kept seeing weird images flicker across peoples’ faces and in their eyes, like shadows or prism-cast rainbows.

Jack, Mike’s younger brother, sat under the maple tree with his guitar. He was leaner than his brother. His skin was a shade lighter and had golden undertones while Mike’s were amber. I squinted: his guitar looked…white? Pale and yellowed, like the whale bones hanging in the Nantucket High School.

I collect instruments that carry stories, Jack told me when I saw him at Easter. He’d showed me his favorite, a guitar his grandfather bought in Berlin in August 1961.

Jack cleared his throat. Our gazes met, and I smiled. He lifted his head slightly in acknowledgement. “I found this guitar on the beach last week,” he said. “And this song kind of wrote itself.”

He began strumming, and in that moment, the instrument in its hand shimmered like a mirage of water – and golden eye in it winked at me. I looked around, but no one else seemed to notice.

I’ll be true to my love, if my love will be true to me, Jack sang with his amber river-voice.

While these two sisters were walking the shore,
Bow, balance to me,
While these two sisters were walking the shore,
The oldest pushed the younger o’er,
And I’ll be true to my love, if my love’ll be true to me.

Audience members looked at each other. Whispers began like a breeze rustling leaves. “Kind of creepy,” my grandmother whispered loudly.

Then, Jack lifted his hand from the instrument, stopped singing, and stared at Aileen. The guitar continued to play on its own. Another voice, my older sister Eara’s summery tones continued:

While we two sisters were walking the shore,
We, Aileen and me,
While we two sisters were walking the shore,
Aileen pushed me into the wat’r,
And I’ll be true to my love, if my love’ll be true to me.

Oh sister, oh sister, please lend me your hand,
Bow, balance to me,
I never, I never will lend you my hand…

Gasps; heads turned to the wedding party’s table. Aileen and Mike exchanged glances, then stood, their chair legs scraping the stone, and ran around the table to Jack. Aileen grabbed the guitar, and they disappeared into the garden.

I was the still point of a turning world. Relatives and friends turned to me, their eyes wide. Last September’s memories rushed through me: the Coast Guard report, Aileen’s days in the hospital, the empty coffin. I walked to Jack, my high heels wobbling.

“Jack,” I said quietly. “What the heck?”

He met my eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “They had to know.” Studying his dark irises, I saw swirling mist instead of the long golden shore I glimpsed in there the last time we spoke.

 “You’re confused,” I said. “Ok. Stay here. Tell everyone else to stay here and finish dinner.”

“Ok,” he said. I walked into the garden.

Last July, Eara had brought some grad school friends here for the weekend. I came back from my day camp job one afternoon to find them walking back from the beach, sandy and sun-kissed. As I closed my car door, I saw Eara drop her blue towel. One of the guys picked it up and put it around her shoulders. She laughed, flicking a strand of wet blond hair out of her eyes. I saw Aileen at the back of the group, looking at them. The guy was Mike.

Thick cedars screened the garden from the house. Lights glimmered on the harbor’s dark water. Mike and Aileen were in the white gazebo.

“Ow! Bracelet,” Mike grunted.  

I walked to the entrance of the gazebo to see Mike hanging onto the neck of a black horse – snap – a black goat – snap – a black rabbit with golden eyes. He managed to keep his grip around the thing’s neck, hanging on as if trying to tame a wild bull with his bare hands. As the rabbit appeared, Aileen snapped her silver bracelet around its neck. It squeaked and lay still. Panting, Mike sat down with a huff, and she sat beside him, holding it in her lap.

Aileen saw me. “Mairi,” she said.

“Ai,” I said, my old nickname for her. My lungs felt small. “Why did that thing say you killed Eara?”

Aileen looked up at me, her freckles standing out more than usual. “It’s, uh…it’s hard to explain.” She looked down at the rabbit, then back at me. “Do you really think I would do that, Mair?”

I studied her eyes: hazel, with flecks of gold. A dappled light like the sun shining through green leaves shimmered over her face – no mist, no darkness, only green and gold.

“No, you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “But what really happened?”

Aileen tilted her head, studying me. “This is a púca,” she said, gesturing at the rabbit in her hands. “It stole Eara’s voice.”

“A shape-shifter?” I said, bending over to look at the rabbit. It panted, meeting my eyes with that gleeful golden stare. “Why would it steal her voice? She’s dead.”

“No,” said Aileen. “She was taken by the Fae.”

When you jump into deep water, you create a thousand tiny bubbles that hover and pop around you. I felt that plunge and tingling sensation now.

“Eara and I were researching the Fae in grad school,” said Mike. “Faerie is drifting towards us again, close enough to visit. She took something they wanted – we don’t know what. Sea Fae took her.”

“We’ve been searching for her all year,” said Ai. “We thought she was in the Aegean, so we booked our honeymoon there. But púcas are Scottish. This is from the Unseelie Court. So she might be there.”

“You knew all year that Eara wasn’t dead, and you didn’t tell us?” I asked. “Ai, seriously?”

“I know. I’m so sorry,” said Aileen. “We weren’t sure anyone would believe us, and telling stories about the Fae attracts their attention. Mike found a safe way to tell me everything after it happened. We…pretended to be dating at first when we were hunting for her, and then we ended up actually wanting to get married. And the wedding was a good cover for quest prep.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“You were in Florida,” said Mike. “Sea serpent country. They’re vicious. All Fae can be, really. And capricious, like this púca. It must have convinced Jack it really was Eara’s bones. I need to talk to him.“

“It means we have to act now,” said Aileen. “Before the wedding. Tonight.”

“Yeah,“ I said. “You two get your marriage license and go to the Aegean. I’ll go to Scotland.”

“Mairi, no,” said Aileen. “You don’t know the Fae.”

“I’m the third daughter,” I said. “You don’t think that matters on a quest? Or the ocean dreams I’ve been having about her?”

We stared at each other. “Second sight,” Mike murmured. Aileen mmmed in agreement.

Another strange feeling came to me: I felt that there were four of us standing here instead of three, and tasted snow.

“We‘ll find her,” I said. “Before the winter solstice.”

My gaze drifted to the harbor, into the waiting dark. A cool breeze brought me a hint of music, like a summons.