I am not the most organized person in the world when it comes to my writing. I only recently jumped on the Scrivener train, and that helps, but each document sort of finds its way into one communal writing folder on my desktop. Occasionally, I sift through this and find some forgotten gems. Not too long ago, I stumbled upon a fantasy story I had started writing—oh—AGES ago. But I found I sort of liked it. I can’t remember where it was going for the life of me, but it’s kind of fun, and instead of letting it fade away, I figured I would post it on my blog.
The city was quiet and grey. There was a drizzle from the clouds above; a smattering that pelted the cobblestone walkways and the brick faces of the buildings. Everything seemed damp, cool, darker than normal on that day.
The two of us had cloaks drawn over our heads, grey and as innocuous as we could generate from the simple fibres and dyes that we drew from the earth. I pulled the hood closer around my face, trying to shelter it from the inquisitive eye of any onlookers.
She was walking beside me—the skin drawn tight around her face, her blonde hair tied back with grey wisps around her temples and her forehead. Her eyes caught mine, and I saw the vibrancy of them—a liquid pool of blue light, so stark in contrast to her dulled features. I smiled reassuringly, despite the fact that my heart stopped when I looked at her. I swallowed hard and quickly averted my vibrant brown eyes to the ground, knowing that anyone who caught sight of either hers, or mine, would know the truth. The brilliance that shone from them was just as tragic as it was beautiful. The deep, living colour was a sign that we weren’t like everybody else. We weren’t like anybody else.
She understood without me having to say anything and lowered her head so the brim of the cloak fell over her face. It seemed such a shame to hide her beauty—such a waste. She was a rose among thorns; a unique commodity in a world of mediocrity, and she had to hide it.
My thoughts were interrupted as I felt, more than saw, her hand reach out from underneath the wide cuff of her grey sleeve. When her delicate fingers wrapped around mine I squeezed instinctively. I could feel her pulse in her fingertips, and it was wildly out of control—as I’m sure—was mine. It was such a risk we were taking, but it wasn’t like there was much of a choice anymore. We had waited as long as possible and there wasn’t any time left. She would argue that we could wait forever. I would never allow it.
I had to take a steadying breath when I noticed the shop that I had been looking for only a few feet away from us. I stopped and dropped her hand instantly. The door was made of glass, and a dark green wood; an elaborate gold work of embossing on the front.
It was an apothecary.
I remembered myself and gave her a sidelong glance that expressed my remorse. She just smiled back at me, though it was frail, and forced. She seemed so weak now; it was almost like the disease had taken the strength from her spirit as well.
“You have to stay here,” I said reaching my hand towards her face and drawing the outline of her jaw with my index finger. My thumb brushed her cheek—cold, and damp from her sweat, though I told myself it was from the rain.
She grabbed my hand and pressed her cheek against it, closing her eyes and breathing in deeply.
“No Dom,” She said after a moment, and I saw a flicker of her old resilience. “You’re going in there for me, but I’m not letting you go in without me.”
I looked down at her, unsure what to say. Her eyes were glassy and bloodshot, dark bags underneath them, and lines that emphasized how hollowed out her face had become. And yet, for the first time in a long time, there was a light in them. A determination. I didn’t even want to try to crush it, but I also didn’t want anything to happen to her. Without saying anything, I pulled her close to me, wrapping my arms around her fading body and breathing in the scent of her. With a hand at the back of her head, I pressed her face against my chest as though I could hide her from everything. From the sickness, from the city, from the people who lived inside of it—letting their fear and hatred of us control our very existence.
“What do I do?” I murmured into the fabric of her hood.
“What we do,” She said quietly, “Is go into that apothecary. Then we go home to Isaac, Joel, and your father.”
“One, two, three, just like that,” I said, doubt seeping into my voice.
“Just like that,” she said back, but her voice trailed off at the end, and I could feel her shaking in my arms.
“Okay,” I said, pulling away from her and holding her away at arm’s length. “Let’s go.”
I stood as far away from her as I could bear, about a foot or two, to try and appear as normal as possible. We weren’t desperately clinging to each other for life and companionship; we weren’t slowly dying in a world build from concrete and fear. We were just like everybody else.
A golden bell chimed as we pushed through the door. I stiffened, and so did she. We both stood there for a moment, motionless.
The shop was cramped, a small square room in the adjoined building. Shelves were built from the floor to the ceiling on the walls, and the middle of the room was clustered with glass shelves. There was enough room for one person to pass between the shelves, and that was all. Tucked into the back corner was a glass cabinet, with an elaborate cash register balanced on top of it.
Every surface was covered in bottles, and jars, filled with all kinds of different liquids; some that seemed as dull and lifeless as stagnant water, and others that absolutely radiated with life. They seemed to swirl of their own will and had a depth and colour that seemed to breathe. There were books stacked on the side shelves; old books with torn leather bindings, and cursive titles like Balancing the Humours and Herbs, Barks, and Healing Plants written in gold along the spines. Some were left open on the counter, the dark, aging paper smudged from where a finger had been drawn down the words countless times. There were strange apparatuses with plastic bulbs and glass tubes, there were small vials and thick brown bottles. Dried plants were hung on nails in the wall. Glass dishes, mortars, and pestles, you name it, it was smashed somewhere in that tiny room.
I moved forward towards the counter tentatively. Every step I took brought one shoulder or another closer to brushing something off a shelf, and I made an effort not to touch anything.
“Well hello,” the cracking voice came out of nowhere, and my heart leapt into my throat. I stumbled backward a few steps and sent a clear bulbous bottle toppling from its spot on the shelf behind me.
The elderly man reached out a hand, catching the thing before it shattered, and one of his impossibly long white eyebrows arched curiously. I stammered, unable to say anything, and he smiled, looking down at the bottle and brushing some dust off of it.
“Miscela di amore,” he said, running a hand through the white, groomed beard that hung off his chin. “Blend of love. This simple concoction of aromatic spices and endorphin raising herbs will cause any woman to fall wildly in love with the man who purchases it. But that’s not what you’re here for, is it?”
His eyes were dark and beady, but there was a light of mischief in them as he looked up at me. I had to remember to avert my eyes, though I couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t seen the brilliance that shone from their earthy iris’ before I forced them to the ground.
“No,” I said finally, and my voice came out without tremble. “I’m here for a healing potion.”
Jolie, my beautiful, wonderful wife, slowly weaved her way through the shelves and stood a few paces behind me. I could feel her looking over my shoulder at the old man that had now moved in front of me.
He wore a brown tunic, tied at the waist with a loose rope belt and long sleeves that had been tied up at the elbows with a similar type of rope. It made him look almost like a monk of sorts, though his long, wild white hair and his beard did little to convince me such was the case. His face was heavily wrinkled, though he appeared to have a youth and a spring in his step that many his age didn’t. He stood fairly tall, and had a knowing look in his eyes that made me extremely nervous.
“Oh?” he said, a small smile playing on his lips. “And what, pray, tell, is the ailment that you seek reprieve from, my dear?”
He bowed at the waist, and looked up, directly at Jolie. I couldn’t help but stand in front of her, moving my body in the way of the old man’s gaze.
“Who said it was for her?” I asked adamantly, feeling heat flare up my chest and around my neck.
“Why young lad,” he said, setting the vial of Love’s Blend on a different shelf than the one it had come from and taking a step closer towards me. He picked another thing off the shelf and examined it. It looked like water, perhaps with a slight green hue to it, though every time I stared at it to see the colour it seemed to dissolve back to a clear, colourless solution. “If it were you that needed the healing potion, you wouldn’t have brought along the woman. As it were, here she is, trembling from head to foot, and wrapping that sad, wet piece of cloth around her as though it were the only thing that could offer her warmth.”
I felt disarmed as he looked back at me. Without knowing how it happened, I found myself staring straight into his eyes.
“You are the chroí briste, aren’t you?” he asked.
I couldn’t take in a proper breath, and I backed up into Jolie without meaning to. We both stumbled. I threw out a hand to catch her and keep myself from knocking over an entire shelf on my way out.
And I certainly needed to get out. The only thing that stopped me was knowing that, without a healing potion, Jolie would die.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said unconvincingly.
“Perhaps then, you are the only ones who have not heard about the chroí briste in the entire city.”
“Well—”I stammered, holding Jolie tightly around the waist with my one arm.
“There is much lore about the chroí briste,” he started, interrupting me and striding toward the counter. I contemplated grabbing Jolie and bolting while his back was turned, but he seemed to have eyes in the back of his head and waved me forwards without turning. “You can leave if you want, but your maiden will surely die.”
I looked back at Jolie, realizing I still had a death lock around her hip. I dropped my hand to my side instantly, and she supported herself on a shelf, glancing up at me with a weariness that seemed to physically drag her down.
“Stay here,” I whispered, brushing away a strand of hair that had fallen out of its tie and tumbled out from underneath her hood. I tucked it back behind her ear and strode toward the man at the counter.
He set down the concoction he had picked up and snapped a book off the shelf, one that looked to be about a hundred years old, with hand-drawn illustrations and elaborate artwork around the first letter on the page he flipped to. It was the letter “C”, embellished with a number of leaves that sprouted from it, and shattered hearts that bled around it. The first word was “Chroi” and the one that followed was predictably, “Briste”. My heart froze at the name. As I tried to read more, I was frustrated by the language. It was all written in Irish. I stared at the picture though, enthralled by it.
There was a woman with long braided red hair, clothed in a green dress, and leaning down off a white horse towards a man on a hillside. The man was kneeling before her with affection etched on his face, but he had ethereal wisps of white coming forth from his opened mouth and gathering in the palm of the woman’s hand.
My blood ran cold, and I felt chills ripple up and down the length of my arms.
The whole picture appeared to be painted in dull, earthen tones in comparison with the flamboyant green that the artist had used for the eyes of the woman and the eyes of the horse. She rode before the forest, which faded in the contrast to the vibrancy of her eyes, and she leaned toward the man, who faded in contrast to her dominance. She was half engrossed in nature, half consuming man.
“W—what does it say?” I asked.
I had always known that there was mythology associated with the Chroi Briste, just as there was lore surrounding every other beast that was thought to roam the earth—the man with the head of a dog, the one-legged creatures that lived in the far East, bloodsuckers, goblins, will-o-the-wisps, ghouls—but had I the access to the books that told of them, I’m not sure I would have read them. Now though, presented with the image, I had to know what it said. It was an unquenchable desire for knowledge, a desperate thirst to understand, it was all-consuming. I forgot the reason we were in the apothecary in the first place and needed only to have the man explain the book to me.
“I will tell you,” he said softly, “but first—”
His hungry gaze fell on Jolie, and I was brought back to the present, to the circumstances that had brought us there in the first place. My hackles raised and I was put on the defensive.
“I want you to show me,” he said, glancing between me and Jolie. “And then I will explain to you the story that is told on these pages. And then I will give you your healing potion.”
I swallowed hard, frozen in indecision. We needed the healing potion—but would the man give it once he saw what we could do? Did his old books and his fancy tales prepare him for the reality, or would he be horrified and angered like the rest of humanity, and refuse to help us?
“Give me the healing potion first,” I said adamantly. “Then we will show you, and then you can explain to us this—this lore.”
He started to stroke his beard again, a contemplative look coming over his face. After a moment he counter-offered.
“I will tell you the story, and then you will show me. I will give you the potion after that. I can’t be entirely certain you wouldn’t take my potion and leave once I’ve given it to you.” He chuckled a soft, old, crackly kind of chuckle, and then rested both hands on the counter on either side of the book.
I looked back at Jolie, my heart constricting in my chest. Her eyes were wide, and she put most of her weight on the arm supported on a shelf. There was terror in her—she didn’t want anyone to know what she could do any more than I did. But we both knew she needed that potion.
“Show me the potion we need,” I said.
He stared at me for a moment and then conceded with a smile. He picked up the potion he had set on the counter, the clear one with the inherent green tinge. He held it for a moment, his eyes locked on mine, before setting it down again with a soft clank, the sound of glass on glass. The air grew impossibly thick and the moment stretched around us as though it would continue on into eternity.
He finally broke the silence, turning his back to me and starting to talk in a loud, clear voice.
“The legend of the Chroi Briste originated in Ireland. It’s a beautiful country from what I have heard. But it has always been said that the beauty of the land and the beauty of the countryside couldn’t compare to the beauty of the Fae maiden Achroi. Born as part of a superior race, the Tuatha de Danaan, she was gloriously and inexplicably connected to nature. But Achroi was enticed by humanity in a way that the other Faeries were not. They were born out of the earth, and their loyalty was bound to the earth. Achroi was different and was sighted by many humans as she rode on a brilliant white stallion with blazing green eyes, to the outskirts of the villages of man. Those who saw her were lured to her, enticed by her eyes perhaps.”
There was a break in his voice as he paused to look up at me and Jolie. I had moved closer to him, and so had she. I found myself with my arm around her shoulder, and the two of us were staring at the picture as though it had come to life and were showing us the story of our history.
The man continued the story.
“There were many men who saw the beauty of Achroi and were drawn to her only to be disappointed when she fled from them in dismay. Achroi knew that she was supposed to stay away from humanity—only interact with them if it were to gain some sort of support for the land. She tried desperately but found herself getting weaker and weaker as she tore herself away from man.
There was one who had seen the mystical Faerie woman and became consumed with thoughts of her. He packed his belongings and left house and home in pursuit of her. By this point, she had become so weak and so numb that she lay in a field of wildflowers, refusing to move for any reason. Unable to move.
The other Fae tended to her, but there was nothing that they could bring her that would ease her discomfort, or cure her ailment. Rumours began to circle about Achroi, surely the superior Tuatha de Danaan wouldn’t fall ill the way she had. What if she were not descended from the goddess Danu as were the rest of them?
The one who had been captivated by her searched through all the woods, desperate to find the maiden who had stolen his heart with one glance of her vibrant eyes. He had stumbled upon her after the other Fae had left. Finding her laying there, staring up at the brilliance of the sky, he threw himself upon her, and wrapped her in his arms, confessing his undying love.
It was then that he began to feel the change in him, as did she in herself. The life began to be restored to her, and the man before her became weak and frail. His hair turned white before her eyes, and his skin became wrinkled upon his bone. Ten, twenty, fifty years taken off his life, until he finally pried his arms from around her, and collapsed in the flowers, gasping.
His love for her died, and he fled from her instantly.
Acroi had stolen his soul, using it to sustain herself, and restore the life that had slowly begun to ebb away from her.
The man returned to his village, unrecognizable by any that had once known him. He told the story to those that would listen, warning them of the Faerie Maiden in the hills. Achroi, knowing now that it was mans’ life that sustained her own, began to pursue those who could still be enticed. She ceased to be known as Achroi—‘love’, or literally translated as, ‘a heart’, and began to be known as ‘Chroi Briste’, heart broken. It was thought that Achroi spawned a race with some of the men she consumed, humans with the ability to steal the soul—just as she had. The Chroi Briste.”
The apothecary became deathly silent. Nobody moved; it seemed as though nobody breathed. The old man finally closed the book, creating a small puff of dust as one ancient page met its counterpart.
“You want us to show you that?” I clarified, pointing at the closed book.