This story is by Mae Jordan and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The medieval dress was perfect for the chilly October night. The heavy wool fabric rustled with every step I took over the fallen leaves. My cloak was pulled closed against the wind’s fingers. Another set of footsteps echoed strangely in my ears, but when I glanced over, no one was there.
Crisp autumn air playfully tugged me in a different direction than the carnival in front. The sound of bells in the distance stopped me. My brows furrowed. Strange. No churches in town have bells. Perhaps the legends of the veil between life and death thinning on All Hallows Eve had some truth to them.
My gran mentioned tonight was the death of the old year and the start of the new. The night was moonless and starless. Only a small amount of mist was visible in the flickering streetlights.
Samhain was a big deal for my hometown. The illumination from the carnival rides added touches of colorful lights like fairies dancing in the wind. Bright, cheerful music carried through the air.
Silence enveloped me. The lights shattered, plunging me into complete darkness. Did something hit me? My head felt like a whirlwind. I couldn’t tell how much time passed before it stopped rattling. Velvet-like darkness sparkled with bright diamond stars.
Rustling caught my attention. A thick grove half naked of their leaves circled me. The air turned my breath into fog. Under my soft slippers was frosty earth instead of pavement. Bells frantically called to people, but what they said I didn’t know.
The wind stilled. Hooting followed by crackling leaves made me jump. I twitched. A will-o-wisp with muffled thuds came towards me. Brambles grasped the edges of my cloak. Clarity came, when the will-o-wisp turned into a hand lantern, illuminating a man and horse.
“My Lady, thank the Goddess!” a deep voice exclaimed.
Umm… how did I end up on a movie set? Or is it an elaborate dream? Despite the rider’s noticeable relief, my heart dropped to my slippers. “Who are you?”
“Lady Erin, do you not know me?” The man’s voice held notes of apprehension, his face half in shadow.
“First, my name is Catlin, not Erin. Second, I wouldn’t have asked, if I knew you,” I snapped. My stomach twisted into a spiral knot. My fingers clenched the lining of my cloak.
“My Lady, I am Connor, one of your father’s vassals.” His heavy eyebrows bunched together and his voice was firm.
. This was a bit much for a prank. Some of my coworkers would think it’d be funny to hire someone like this. My skepticism painted itself on my face. Connor grimaced with my staring like he was a poor imitation of a banshee.
“My Lady. If you come with me, the Arch-Druid can find out what’s happened to you.” His tone was neutral.
Locking my gaze with his, my brows arched. He shifted uneasily in the saddle. The horse circled. Going with him would be the only way to get answers. I don’t know where I am. Others could see me the same way and take advantage or worse. “I agree to meeting the Arch-Druid.” If it is a prank, there’ll be harsh words.
Conner settled his horse then dismounted with the ease of long practice. I blinked when he dropped the reins and the horse stayed still. Huh. I didn’t know they’d do that. Clearly no expense was spared.
“My Lady, I’ll place you on my steed and lead her to your father’s castle.”
The liegeman approached crunching leaves morphed into screaming sirens. Agony cracked through my body like lightning in a nasty thunderstorm. My stomach sloshed like too many drinks in a mosh pit. Scents of an unwashed body and horse clashed with antiseptics and medicines.
“My Lady, are you well?”
Whiplash brought his worried face into view.“That’s debatable.” My voice rasped. Nausea threatened to become more.
I felt like a rubber band being pulled in too many directions. Pain pulled one way, rage another, reassurance for Conner a third, and wanting everything to go away a fourth.
“My Lady?” The vassal’s voice was full of fear.
“No, I’m not well. Perhaps, we should hurry to the Arch-Druid?” Am I on one of those horrible rides that cracked the back of the rider?
“As you wish, My Lady.” Conner’s voice cracked. He sat the lantern on the ground.
His grip on my waist was steady. He easily hefted me into the saddle. Instinctively, I grabbed the mane. The vassal stooped, picking up the reins and lantern. Clicking his tongue, they started walking. The slow gait was strangely soothing.
A snapping branch switched reality again, voices frantically discussing my condition were distant. Everything blurred. A vague male shape leaned over, demanding to know my status, then shouted to prep for surgery. I bit back a scream then fell off the horse. The impact of someone catching me hurt. I whimpered.
“My Lady, I’ll ride behind you. So you’ll not fall again.” Connor re-established my seat, then swung up behind me, hooking the lantern to the saddle. Having his arm around my waist felt like an unyielding band pressing into my gut slowly bursting my organs.
The trip to the castle was excruciating. Each movement jared reality. I was comfortable with the rocking motion or my bones were no longer together and screaming.
In between the constant switching, into my swimming vision towers stabbed the night sky. No, no this wasn’t a joke.The outer walls were manned with flickering torches adding to the surrealiness of the pale and dark world.
The steed’s hooves echoed on the stones leading to the inner gates. Once past them, a boy of seven trotted up to us and took the reins from Conner. The vassal dismounted then lifted me out of the saddle. Gratitude filled me. He kept me steady as my head spun and pounded.
Each step sent the sharpness of knives through my feet and legs. The crunch of rushes under our feet didn’t help either my head or lower body. Entering the great hall my gaze landed on three men on a dais.
The man on the left radiated serenity, wore robes and held a long staff. Well I’d say he was a wizard but probably was the Arch-Druid. The man on the throne gave a sense of authority my father would be jealous of. The man on the right caused my breath to catch.
He towered over the other two men. His skin shimmered like starlight. The red-gold hair was brighter than my auburn. But the color of his eyes weren’t the shade any human had—eagle gold. They pinned me.
Conner left, approaching the dais. When the inhumanly beautiful man said, “That’s not Erin.”
The vassal’s gaze flicked to him then heaved a sigh. “She said her name was Catlin, My Lord.”
“How is it you replaced my Erin?” The lilt was charming, the tone wasn’t.
I’d crept to the dais. I met his burning gaze with my own. Anger bubbled under my skin. The world swallowed me whole.
Aguish held my body hostage. My eyes refused to open. I heard shouting but didn’t understand the words. Roaring filled my ears then I was back in front of the dais. Strong arms kept me from collapsing.
Soft footsteps mingled with the waves in my ears. A gentle hand laid on my aching head. A lyrical voice spoke a language I didn’t know lessening the pain enough, I could open my eyes. The Arch-Druid stood in front of me.
“Child, you must choose here or there. You have until sunrise,” the druid stated.
My gaze went to the man who held me. Eagle eyes’ peered into mine. Sean’s arms tightened. Sean? How did I know his name?
Time stopped. I was Erin and Catlin. Sean was my betrothed and half-Sidhe, the Druid was Seamus, and on the throne was my father, Lord Liam. I’ve faced this decision before and stayed.
On this Samhain, I choose between life and death. I’d become Erin and forget again. I watched the lives I lived until this point came again. How many times have I done this? Twenty? Thirty? More? Did it matter? I’m weary of this cycle. My chin trembled. I needed to let go. I peered at Seamus through wet eyelashes.
“I’ll go back,” my voice cracked.
Seamus beamed. “A difficult but wise choice.” His chants sent me from Sean’s arms to yelling doctors. A soft smile curled my lips.
“Time of death, 11:59 p.m., October 31st,” the emergency surgeon said. “Do we have a name?”
“Yes, Doctor. Her ID said Catlin A. O’Malley.”
Twelve a.m. in the maternity ward…
“Congratulations, it’s a girl! What are you going to name her?” the maternity nurse asked.
The new mother glanced at her daughter, answering, “Erin Lynn O’Brien.”