Dusk tarnishes the light when I find the faerie woman, caught in brambles at the edge of the forest. Thorns snag her wine-dark velvet cloak, tangle in russet curls. Her eyes widen as eye approach.
A wood-wife, foolish enough to wander too near a witch’s snare. She flinches away from my iron, my sweat and blood-stained leather. Death hangs over my shoulders, a pall I have yet to shed.
Through thinning trees I see the old stone wall that marks the farthest boundary of the village. I can make it home by nightfall if I press on.
But her lips shape a silent “please”, and I pause. My house has waited three years for me; it can wait another hour.
Winter steals upon her as it does the wood–white threads her hair and webs of frost creep up the hem of her robe. Soon she will be white-armed winter, inexorable as ice. But the last of the season’s warmth still lingers in her dark eyes.
“Please,” she mouths again. Briars hold her voice fast; whoever trapped her knew their craft. She raises a hand. Thorn-scars trace her skin, white on ivory.
I move closer, leaves crunching like bones underfoot, and lay a careful hand on a thorny branch. Scarred now, callused and broken-nailed. Once I was white and soft as she. Over my own sweat I smell her–cinnamon and amber, bittersweet cloves. Her lips would taste of mulled wine.
My swordhilt digs into my palm. Iron chills me, clears my head.
Sharp-toothed beneath her glamorie, ruthless as the forest. Cold and treacherous. Fae. No doubt she’s led her share of hunters and children to foolish deaths. She will kill again, if freed.
Her chapped lips tighten as she watches me. Immortal, but she still thirsts and hungers and suffers.
I could grant the mercy of steel. I have enough blood on my hands after this war–one more life is nothing. One more little beauty snuffed.
Her eyes narrow. She doesn’t beg again. I want to feel her soft skin. My touch would stain her.
My hand closes around the brambles, thorns biting deep. Blood slicks flesh and wood, drips down my wrist and splatters the leaves below.
Cursing, I rip aside the briars, break the witcheries woven through the canes. I stand back, bleeding and gasping, and let the faerie slip free of the thorns.
She stares for a moment, clutching her tattered cloak around her, wary as any wild thing. For a heartbeat I wonder if she’ll turn on me for my trouble, tear out my throat and leave my bones as a warning for other foolish travelers.
Instead she brushes my cheek with petal-soft fingers. Her touch steals my breath. By the time I reclaim it, she’s vanished into deepening shadows and drifting leaves.
Her next kill is on my hands, like so many others. But at least one beautiful thing is left unbroken.
Amanda Downum is a previous contributor to Cabinet des Fées. She lives in Texas, where she slaves in a library to support her fiction habit. She keeps a husband and many cats. She bakes gingerbread, but does not eat children. Her short fiction is published at Strange Horizons.
Image: Fair Helena, Arthur Rackham 1908