Remember, never accept a gift without knowing the consequences. Set in the Tufa universe.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by associate editor Diana Pho.
Bronwyn Hyatt looked at herself in the mirror of her parents’ bedroom. That is, she would have if the white veil hadn’t clouded her vision so much. She scowled, lifted it, and said to her mother, “There’s no way I’m getting married in this. It’s too much like looking out through a tent flap. How did you even see to walk down the aisle?”
Her mother, Chloe, sighed, the latest of millions of exasperated sighs inspired by her daughter. “We didn’t walk down an aisle. You’re the first pureblood Tufa to ever do that, as far as I know. And the dress was fine when I wore it. It was fine when your grandmother wore it, and it was fine for all the women before that.”
“Well, it’s not fine for me.”
“What will Craig say?”
“Craig will say, ‘Whatever makes you feel right about this, sweetie.’ Because he’s a damn adult.”
Bronwyn took off the veil. Her mother undid the eyelet hooks up her spine, and she shrugged out of the dress, glad to be free of both the fabric and the weight of Tufa tradition. She pulled her T-shirt back on and said, “I’m sorry, Mom. It’s a beautiful dress, and if I was marrying another Tufa, it’d be perfect.”
“Are you going to wear your uniform, then?”
“I’m not in the army anymore.”
“What will you wear?”
“You know what? I don’t care. I’ll pick a nice dress and everything will be fine. He ain’t marrying the dress.”
Chloe carefully placed the dress on the bed and arranged it to go back into its storage box. “Honey, you’re a First Daughter, and a pureblood Tufa. What you do matters. People are watching.”
“Really?” Bronwyn deadpanned. “I’m the best they’ve got for entertainment? There isn’t an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras on?”
“Make jokes all you want, but this is an important decision. If you wore my dress, then you’d be acknowledging your status in the community. If you wore your uniform, you’d be saying you were proud of being a warrior. Both of those are . . .” She paused as she sought the word. “Acceptable.”
“And what’s not?” Bronwyn challenged.
Chloe stood upright and put her hands on her hips. “A cavalier decision. One that doesn’t take your people into account.”
“I’m not marrying ‘my people,’ Mom. I’m marrying Craig. I could do it in blue jeans and he’d be fine with it.”
“But you wouldn’t be. This is the sort of decision that could come back to bite you.”
“And what in the hell do you mean by that?”
“Let’s not fight, honey,” Chloe said when she saw her daughter’s expression.
“How could choosing the wrong dress bite me, Mom?”
“The night winds are watching, Bronwyn. They care. If you disrespect them, like you did when you joined the army . . . things might happen.”
Bronwyn’s eyes narrowed. “All this because of a dress.”
“All this because of a symbol,” Chloe corrected.
Bronwyn looked at the dress again, but she was absolutely sure it was the wrong one for her. Surprising herself, she realized she saw it as a symbol, too, of things she could no longer bear.
“All right,” Bronwyn said. “But I’m not using that dress. It is a beautiful dress, Mom, and I don’t mean any disrespect, but it’s just not right for me.”
“Then what is?”
The Hyatts of Cloud County, Tennessee, lived in the part of the Appalachian Mountains known as the Smokies for the low cloud cover that clung to the trees like smoke. They were full-blooded, so like all the Tufa had the same black hair, perfect teeth, and slightly dusky skin. According to legend, the Tufa had been in these mountains when the first Scotch-Irish settlers arrived; no one knew their true origins, or at least no one who wasn’t also a Tufa. There were stories and legends, and clues could be found in paintings and songs. Some of the crazier theories said they were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or survivors of Atlantis. But the actual tale was something the Tufa guarded closely, as closely as the truth that on certain nights, the Tufa could fly on shimmering wings and ride the night winds.
A pureblood Tufa would normally marry another Tufa. But Bronwyn had always been rebellious. As a teen she’d joined the army just to get out of Needsville, only to be severely injured and brought home as an invalid war hero. That’s when she met Craig, a young Methodist minister from just across the county line, and if it hadn’t been precisely love at first sight, it was, as they say, close enough for government work.
So despite the pressure from the Tufa to marry one of her own, she’d accepted Craig’s proposal, and now the date of the wedding approached. But as she walked through the woods alone, humming and wondering what sort of dress would be appropriate for her situation, she was completely unprepared for the woman who leaped from the trees in front of her, brandishing—of all things—a sword, and who cried, “Halt, in the name of the night winds!”
Bronwyn stopped and stared. The woman had black hair tied in a topknot and braided with what looked like shells or bits of bone. She wore leather armor and a matching skirt that left her muscular legs bare above her sandals. She held the sword defensivelyand said, “I know you are a warrior, Bronwyn Hyatt. That’s why I seek you out.”
The woman was barely three feet high, yet perfectly proportioned. She spoke in a flat, accentless way. Bronwyn blinked and said, “Uh . . . hi.”
“Do you not know me, then?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“The Tsalagi call us the Yunwi Tsunsdi.”
Brownyn’s eyes opened wide. These were the native fae of the New World, who had been elusive and rare even when the Tufa arrived centuries ago. The Tsalagi, known more commonly as the Cherokee, had many stories about them. The first Tufa occasionally glimpsed them but had never been able to make actual contact. Bronwyn, in fact, knew no one who’d ever seen them. Certainly none had ever sought out a Tufa by name.
Bronwyn made the Tufa hand gesture for respect. “I’m sorry for not realizing who you were. You don’t come around very often.”
The woman nodded and put the sword into a scabbard. “That is not a problem. But there is a problem you have, do you not? That’s why you wander the woods, am I right?”
“I’m just thinking about things.”
The woman reached into a bush beside the trail and produced a miniature fiddle. She tucked it under her chin and played a high, mournful note. “It is a beautiful day for thinking. What are you pondering?”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s not really any of your business.”
The little warrior laughed. “Then I’ll tell you. You’re thinking about your upcoming wedding, aren’t you?”
Bronwyn looked at her suspiciously. “And how do you know that?”
“The same way I know your name. And that’s the very thing that brought me to you. I, too, am taking a husband.” Her music changed to a harsher, more martial melody. “And like you, I am a warrior, one who prefers the cries of battle to those of the bedchamber.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m exactly like—”
She drowned out Bronwyn with a climactic flourish. “Ah, for sure both do have their pleasures, I know. But we two, you and I, have tasted the power of dispensing death to our enemies. The men we choose as mates, they are the special kind who can embrace a woman like us. They deserve more than some virgin in white standing meekly before the altar.”
“That’s true,” Bronwyn had to admit.
“So . . . I bring you a gift. Follow me.”
Brownyn hesitated. The warning stories of mortals wandering off with the Little People applied just as easily between races of the fae, if both weren’t careful. “I don’t even know your name. You know mine; does that seem fair?”
“My name is Orla.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Orla. Now how did you know my name?”
“Oh, we keep tabs on you Tufa.”
“That’s not reassuring. And I don’t know that I want to traipse off in the woods with someone who’s been spying on me.”
Orla grinned. “Ah, you don’t trust me. And it is true, you don’t know me as I do you. Wait here, then.”
She leaped into a patch of briars and vanished. Bronwyn looked around to see if she could spot anyone who might be playing an elaborate joke on her, but there was no one.
The warrior woman emerged further down the trail, without the fiddle, in front of three equally small men. They had long, thick beards and sullen expressions, and wore bright red caps that rose to a point, like those of garden gnomes. Above them they carried a wooded frame, and from that frame hung a delicate, diaphanous gown of white with red edging. It looked both medieval and modern, and Bronwyn whistled at its beauty.
Orla nodded in approval. “So you know quality work when you see it, eh?”
“It is your wedding gown.”
Bronwyn almost laughed. It was scaled for Orla’s people, and so was no bigger than a kindergartener’s dress. “Well, I planned to lose some weight for the wedding, but not that much.”
“Hang it in your closet this night. By sunrise it shall fit you like your own armor.”
The sullen men raised the wooden frame so that Bronwyn could take the dress from it. She did, carefully holding it by just her fingertips.
“It is white for the newness of your marriage, edged with red to show that you be no shrinking, untried virgin. What say you?”
“I say, as beautiful as it is, I know it’s not from the goodness of your heart. What do you want in return?”
Orla put her hands on her hips and laughed. “To the point, eh? Well, here’s my say. Your people and mine, we’ve been living near each other, nigh on top of each other, since these mountains rose jagged into the sky, but we’ve never bonded. And now our kings are old, and foolish, so if things are to be mended, it’ll be by those of us with the youth and vision to see it. So I propose this: you wear this gown to your wedding, and I will attend as a guest. Then you pass it back to me for my hand fasting, and you attend mine. How does that sound?”
It sounded fine; it sounded, in fact, like something Bronwyn herself might propose to her own Tufa people as she tried to ease them into the modern world, despite their reluctance. And looking into the little warrior’s face, she saw a mirror of her own certainty that the way things had been for thousands of years was no longer workable.
“All right,” Brownyn said. “But I want something tangible to mark our bargain.”
“Is the gown not tangible?”
“Oh, it’s tangible. But I want something more. Give me your sword.”
Her eyebrows rose. “My sword? A warrior never gives up her blade.”
“Not to an enemy, but she does to an ally.”
Slowly, her eyes never leaving Brownyn’s, the warrior woman drew her sword and handed it over. In Brownyn’s hand it was no bigger than a letter opener. Bronwyn used the point to nick the pad of her thumb, then gave the weapon back. Orla, comprehending, did a similar thing, and pressed her tiny thumb to Bronwyn’s comparatively gigantic one.
“We’re sisters now,” Bronwyn said. “And just like allies in battle, sisters never betray each other without losing honor and family.” Bronwyn took the sword from Orla. “I’ll keep this as a gesture of your good will.”
“And I shall see you at your wedding, then.”
Bronwyn nodded. Orla made the same gesture of respect Bronwyn had used earlier. Then she turned and, with her grumpy attendants, vanished back into the bushes.
Brownyn draped the small dress over her arm, careful not to let the sword snag the fabric. Orla hadn’t asked the wedding’s location, but Bronwyn was certain she would keep her word and show up, even across the county line in wholly mundane Unicorn.
Now her biggest problem was how to prepare Craig for the arrival of a tiny warrior woman at the Triple Springs Methodist Church.
When she arrived back at her parents’ house, only her father, Deacon, was home. He sat at the kitchen table shucking a bucket of corn. He saw the tiny dress and said, “Your mama will be so happy you’re finally playing with baby dolls. Or do I need to bring the shotgun to this wedding?”
“Ha, ha,” Bronwyn said flatly. “Is Aiden here?”
“Naw, he’s out with them Bachman boys getting into trouble, and your mama went over to the Lundsy place. Why?”
She carefully placed the dress on the back of the couch and sat down opposite her father. “Daddy, you ever heard of the Yunwi Tsunsdi?”
He looked blank for a moment, then it registered. “Them little folk?”
“I’ve heard of ’em. Never seen ’em. Don’t know anyone who has. Figured by now they must’ve died out or moved on.”
“They haven’t done either.” She told him quickly about the encounter.
When she finished, he said, “Well, ain’t that something. Wonder what they really want?”
“I’ve been thinking about that the whole way home. I wonder if they’re in the same state the Tufa are in: trying to figure out a way to move into the future. Maybe they think reaching out to us is the best way.”
“They’re known to be kind of tricky,” her father said.
“So are we,” she said with a little grin.
“You probably should let Mandalay and Rockhouse know.”
She scowled. “I don’t want to talk to Rockhouse.”
“Nobody does. But you still need to do it. You can probably catch both of ’em tomorrow down at the post office.”
“Yeah,” she agreed reluctantly.
“So are you gonna wear the dress?”
“If it’s big enough in the morning. I said I would. And it is beautiful.”
“And if she shows up at your wedding, what’s Craig gonna say?”
“He’d better say, ‘I do,’” she said as she got up and took the dress to her bedroom.
The post office in Needsville, Cloud County’s only community, was by far the newest building around. It replaced the old house that had served for nearly a century, and its squat brick facade stood out starkly against the rest of the gradually fading town.
Still, just as it had on the original building, the front porch sported a row of well-worn rocking chairs, more often than not occupied by one of the Tufa’s two leaders. He was an old man with white hair, clad without fail in stained overalls, and with one distinguishing physical feature—six working fingers on each hand. His name was Rockhouse.
Today, his opposite number joined him, sitting cross-legged in her chair and playing a Nintendo DS. She was eleven years old, with long black hair and eyes that seemed deeper than the depths of the night sky. Her name was Mandalay.
People familiar with the stories of the old fairy folk of Europe might have heard of the two opposing tribes, the Seelie and Unseelie. Those terms were never used by the Tufa; in fact, their two groups had no individual names. But that didn’t mean they didn’t resemble those old-world antecedents.
So when Bronwyn parked the family truck in the post office lot and stood in the grass below the porch, she waited quietly to be recognized just as any subject would before two monarchs.
Finally Rockhouse spit perilously close to her feet and said, “What do you want?”
Bronwyn made the complex gesture of the respect and obedience that all Tufa owed to the two leaders. Then she said, “I have news you’ll find interesting.”
“You reckon?” Rockhouse said.
Mandalay looked up from her game. “Then tell us.”
Bronwyn related the events of the previous day. When she finished, neither of her listeners visibly reacted. Finally she prompted, “Well?”
“Deep subject,” Rockhouse said, and spit again.
“What do you want us to say?” Mandalay asked.
“Give me some guidance here, some advice.”
“You shoulda asked for that before you made an alliance between our two races,” Rockhouse said.
“I didn’t make any alliance,” Brownyn said defensively. “I made an agreement between two women about to get married to attend each other’s wedding.”
“You think a wedding ain’t an alliance?” Rockhouse said with a derogatory snort. “It’s all about the balance of power.”
“Says the old man who’s never been married,” Bronwyn shot back.
“He’s right,” Mandalay said calmly. “Whatever you thought you were agreeing to, you did make an alliance on behalf of all of us. If anything happens to you, it’ll fall to us to avenge you.”
“What? What the hell could happen to me? She’s this big.” She held her hand at her waist.
“She appears as she wishes. Just like we do. And doesn’t it seem a little strange to break thousands of years of silence and isolation over a dress?”
Mandalay had a point with that. Trying not to show the sudden uncertainty and fear she felt, Bronwyn said, “Well . . . what should I do?”
“Honor your word,” Mandalay said, and returned her attention to her game. “I’ll see you at your wedding.”
“I won’t,” Rockhouse said. “Might come to your next one,” he added with a cold chortle.
Bronwyn realized she’d been dismissed. As she walked back to her truck, she thought over what they’d said. She hated to admit it, but Rockhouse might be right. What if she had been expertly manipulated, and put the whole community at risk, over her refusal to wear her mother’s gown? What kind of shadow would that cast on her marriage?
Then again, she was marrying the man she loved, and nothing, no old man or tiny woman, was going to mess that up.
On the day of her wedding, Bronwyn Hyatt stood in the vestibule of the Triple Springs Methodist Church, awaiting the distinctive music. Deacon, in the suit he wore only for weddings and funerals, stood beside her. The dress did indeed fit her perfectly, leaving her shoulders bare and accenting her shape as if it had been tailored for her.
He noticed that she kept looking out through the glass front doors at the parking lot. “Worryin’ about your little friends?” he said with a sly smile. He’d been calling them that ever since she’d told him about meeting Oral.
“Worrying about havin’ a daddy who’s such a smart-ass,” Bronwyn said.
“Girl, you’re wound up tighter than the girdle of a preacher’s wife at an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast.”
“I’m about to be a preacher’s wife, Daddy.”
He put a hand on her shoulder. “You kept your end of things,” he said seriously. “You wore the dress like you said you would. You ain’t got no control over anything else. Don’t let it ruin your day.”
She nodded and turned away from the door. “You’re right, Daddy.”
The march music began, and Deacon offered his arm. “Ready to sell him the cow?”
Brownyn almost laughed. The irony was that Craig, as a minister, had refused getting the milk for free when they dated, no matter how badly Bronwyn had wanted to give it. She suspected her father knew that.
They opened the inner vestibule doors and began the slow march down the aisle. She knew the borrowed dress looked spectacular on her, but the only opinion that mattered was that of the man waiting for her at the end of her walk.
He stood tall and handsome in his best suit, his fresh haircut immaculately combed into position. She’d never seen him like that: usually his hair was delightfully tousled. But she had seen the broad, uninhibited smile that spread across his face. She saw it every time he first caught sight of her.
Beside him stood his father. The resemblance was clear, and Brownyn thought that if Craig aged the way his father had, then she’d done pretty dang well for herself.
The church wasn’t full. Many Tufa wouldn’t cross the county line for this, and of the ones that would, most wouldn’t set foot in a Christian church. But her immediate family was there, and the few friends whose presence really counted: Bliss Overbay, Peggy and Marshall Goins, and, as promised, Mandalay Harris.
She felt a sharp pang of sadness at the memory of Kell, her older brother who’d died around the time she met Craig. She could only imagine how he would’ve teased her about marrying a Christian minister from out of town, when so many of the local boys still had their eye on “the Bronwynator.”
On Craig’s side were his mother, two brothers and sisters-in-law, and his one nephew. The little boy, five years old, was one of the most obnoxious children Bronwyn had ever met, and ignored the wedding as he played Minecraft on his father’s iPhone.
Bronwyn, though, noted all this only in passing. She had eyes just for Craig.
Deacon handed her off to her future husband, then withdrew. Craig winked at her, and she almost giggled out loud.
The minister, Craig’s friend and mentor George Landers, smiled and opened his Bible. “Dearly beloved—”
The vestibule doors slammed open. Every person’s head snapped around.
Orla stood there, clad in a gown the color of autumn leaves. Her hair was wound into two braids and festooned with ribbons. Behind her were a dozen of her fellows, the women all in dresses, the men all wearing bright red caps. She cried, “Have you started without us?”
“You made it just in time,” Bronwyn called, trying not to laugh at the absurdity.
“That is good, then. All right, you badgers, to your burrows! And act like you have been to the village before!”
The little folk quickly filed into the back two rows of pews on Bronwyn’s side and had to jump or climb to get to a seat. When they were settled, Bronwyn turned back to Reverend Landers. “Sorry. They’re friends of mine.”
He seemed completely unperturbed. “I’m glad they made it, then. Shall we continue?”
Bronwyn risked a glance at Craig’s family. None of them looked twice at the little folk; the boy had even returned to his game. It seemed the Yunwi Tsunsdi, like the Tufa, had the ability to cast a glamour over the unwitting, so that they saw nothing unusual. After the ceremony, everyone adjourned to the fellowship hall for the reception. It was a small room with only two long tables, but they were laden with food, and before long people were producing instruments and filling the space with music. Bronwyn and Craig did the usual newlywed goofy pictures, including stuffing cake in each other’s mouths, then had their first dance to an achingly beautiful rendition of Laura Powers’ “The Pipes of Inishmore,” played and sung by Bliss Overbay.
When Bronwyn finally sat down for a break, the little warrior woman came over and stood on the chair beside her, putting them at eye level. “This is an old woman’s party, is it not? No drinking. No couples stealing off to dark corners. No bloody fights over honor.”
“I know. It’s how my husband’s people are. They also have a lot of good qualities.”
“Oh, I am not criticizing. I just wanted to warn you that when you come for my wedding, things will be considerably wilder.”
“I don’t know that I can bring a whole gaggle of folks like you did.”
“That’s fine. You and your betrothed are enough.”
Bronwyn looked up sharply. “Wait . . . you expect Craig to come?”
“Of course. I brought my betrothed.”
She gestured at a small, strapping man whose beard was smeared with cake icing. He saw her and waved, slinging frosting all over the back of Craig’s mother’s dress.
Bronwyn said, “Um . . . you do realize my husband isn’t Tufa. At all.”
“Of course, that’s why he doesn’t see us as we are.”
“Yeah, thank you for that, But he also won’t . . .”
The woman put a tiny but iron-strong hand on Bronwyn’s shoulder. “We had an agreement, Bronwyn Hyatt. I expect you to honor it. Husband and wife will come to our wedding. As we have done, so shall you do. Are we clear?”
Bronwyn could think of no way out of this, and she was far too proud to bring in Mandalay to mediate. “Well . . . all right. As we agreed. No tricks, though. He can eat and drink without any danger. He may not be a Tufa by blood, but he is by marriage.”
Orla grinned. This close, in clear light, Bronwyn saw that her teeth were pointed and fit together like matching saw blades. “No tricks, agreed. The wedding is in a week, on the night of the full moon. I’ll send word how to find us.”
“Okay,” Brownyn said. She smiled at Craig, whose hair was again that tousled mass she found so irresistible. Despite the distraction of Orla’s presence, she couldn’t wait to finally, after two years of mostly chaste courtship, get him alone and naked.
It was after midnight in the parsonage beside the church before Craig and Bronwyn had a chance to talk. They lay together drenched in sweat and love and lust that needed only a brief respite to reignite. Bronwyn had never been so happy.
“So,” Craig asked as he sipped from the ice water he’d presciently placed on the bedside table, “want to tell me about the dwarves who came to the wedding?”
She rose enough to look at him in the dim light. “What did you see?”
“A dozen people about three feet tall who looked like garden gnomes.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“Neither did you. I figured if they weren’t supposed to be there, you would have.”
She almost wanted to cry at his simple acceptance. He knew about the history of the Tufa, and had seen just enough to convince him of its truth. But there was so much more he didn’t know. Yet each revelation showed just how thoroughly he was the man she’d fallen for.
“I love you,” she said with more sincerity than she’d thought it possible to feel. Then she explained who the Little People were, and what was now expected of her and her new husband.
“Hm,” he said calmly when she’d finished. “Sounds interesting.”
“It will be. It could also be dangerous. We’d be in their territory, playing by their rules.”
“They did okay when they came to ours.”
“Our rules are much less . . . arbitrary.”
“You’ll watch out for me, though, right?”
“You know it.”
“Then I’m sure it’ll be fine.” And then his hand strayed to somewhere she’d ached to have him touch ever since she’d known him, and everything else melted away.
Three days after the wedding, Bronwyn drove back to her family’s farm and took the dress out into the woods to the spot where she’d received it. Carefully she draped it over a low-hanging branch, making sure no briars or twigs snagged it. She looked around for any sign of Orla or the other Yunwi Tsunsdi, but saw nothing: no tiny footprints, no disturbed greenery, no evidence of their existence at all.
“Here it is,” she said softly to the woods. “Thank you again, and I look forward to returning your sword when I attend your wedding on the full moon. Just let me know where.”
As she walked back to her farm, she couldn’t help stopping to hold up her hand and gaze at the gold band she now wore. She’d always imagined these bands would feel like slave shackles, the weight a constant reminder of the freedom you gave up when you decided you’d only be with one person, ostensibly forever. But now she realized something her mother had told her more than once—that when it’s the right person, your world doesn’t shrink, it expands beyond your imagination. You fly higher, sing more purely, dance more joyfully.
She giggled with happiness.
Back at the Hyatt farm, her parents and younger brother sat at the table eating some homemade ice cream. She joined them. Her brother Aiden, ten years old, asked, “Are you pregnant yet?”
“Aiden!” Chloe snapped. “Apologize to your sister.”
“Sorry, I just know that when people get married, the wife tends to get pregnant right away.”
Bronwyn mock-glared at him. “I don’t know, and it’s none of your business, smart-ass.”
“Since I’ll be his uncle, he’ll have to do what I say, right? Just like I have to do what Uncle Chilly says.”
“When you get enough sense to keep your own head out of your butt, we’ll see about letting you boss other people around,” Deacon said. He turned to Bronwyn. “Did you do what you needed to do out there?”
“I did. I’ll go back later and check on it.”
“Maybe you should wait until tomorrow,” Chloe suggested.
“I’m on my honeymoon. I don’t want to have to keep driving all the way out here.”
“I thought when you went on a honeymoon, you went on a trip somewhere,” Aiden said.
“Not on a preacher’s salary,” Deacon said.
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” Bronwyn said. “We decided not to blow a bunch of money on it right now. We can take a trip anytime and call it a honeymoon.”
She turned and looked out through the screen door at the yard, and the barn beyond it. Orla had known all about her. Had she been spying on them for a long time, peeking in windows left innocently open and lurking just outside doors? Was she out there now, crouched in a bush or hidden in a tree, listening to their intimate conversation?
The cut on her thumb tingled. It could, she knew, just be the itch that came with healing. But it might also be a signal that her new blood sister was nearby.
“I’m going back to check on the dress,” Bronwyn said abruptly.
“Can I come with you?”Aiden asked excitedly.
“Sure. If Mom and Dad don’t mind.”
“If you see one of them Yunwi Tsunsdi,” Deacon said, “Don’t eat or drink anything they might give you.”
“How can it hurt me? I’m a Tufa, they’re Yunwi Tsunsdi, we’re basically alike.”
Deacon gave the boy his hardest father-to-son look. “Don’t eat or drink anything. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Aiden said meekly.
As they walked through the woods, Aiden asked, “Why do people get married?”
“Because they love somebody so much they want to spend the rest of their life with them,” Bronwyn answered.
“And that’s how you feel about Craig?”
“But what about Terry-Joe?”
Terry-Joe was her late ex-boyfriend’s teenage brother, who’d had a huge crush on Bronwyn since he was old enough to notice girls. “Terry-Joe is a little young for me. And besides, I don’t love him. I love Craig.”
“But Terry-Joe’s a Tufa. Aren’t we supposed to only marry other Tufas?”
That question cut right to the heart of the whole Tufa dilemma. As purebloods, a shrinking population to be sure, the Hyatts had a special responsibility to their people. But they also had a responsibility to themselves. “What we’re supposed to do is not always the right thing to do. The right thing for me to do was marry Craig.”
Aiden nodded, not entirely understanding but wanting the uncomfortable intensity to stop.
They reached the spot where Bronwyn had left the dress, and it was gone. No footprints marred the dirt path, and none of the greenery seemed disturbed. She went closer, and saw a tiny piece of parchment tied with a ribbon dangling from the tip of a branch. She took it down.
Bronwyn parked her truck at the end of the path, the headlights illuminating only the thick trunks of old trees. The undergrowth was so close, there was barely enough room on either side for her and Craig to open their doors. “Romantic, at least, what with the full moon,” Craig observed. He wore slacks and a dress shirt, and she was clad in the dress she often wore to the community barn dance.
“Yeah. Well, according to my information, this is the path.”
She pointed to the ground, where a faint, worn track could be seen in the moonlight. It was barely six inches wide, and became a path through the undergrowth about four feet high where the brush grew thick. “That’s our highway.”
“Eastbound . . .” He crouched and peered into the darkness. “And really down.”
They made their way through the woods, Bronwyn in the lead. Overhead the canopy grew thicker, until soon there was no moonlight to guide them. A dark, round hill rose from the forest floor, so old that mature trees grew from it. Then, ahead, they saw what they first thought was a large firefly, but turned out to be a small lamp. Moths fluttered around it.
It hung from a low branch and marked the opening of a tunnel about four feet high. Music and high-pitched laughter came from deep inside.
“I assume we go in?” Craig asked.
“I reckon.” Bronwyn felt a warning kind of buzz in her head, one she’d learned to trust when she’d been in Iraq. But the cut on her thumb tingled again, reminding her that she had no choice. “Just stay close to me and don’t eat or drink anything without checking with me first.”
Bronwyn crouched low and moved into the tunnel. Craig, being taller, had to get down on all fours. The passage bent to the right a short distance in, plunging them into total darkness. The noise grew louder, though, and after another turn, light blazed from the tunnel’s end ahead.
Bronwyn emerged into a great open cavern much larger than the hill outside had appeared, held up by golden columns that gleamed like fire, reflecting the illumination of thousands of tiny lamps. The roof was a dome of ivory. And filling it were the music, voices, and warmth of over a thousand Little People, all dancing, drinking, and celebrating.
Craig crawled from the tunnel, stood up, and brushed the dirt from his slacks. He looked around as if he saw a place like this every day.
“You have made it!” the little warrior woman cried. She emerged from the crowd in the white-and-red dress, now shrunken to its original size. “We were hoping you’d be here in time for the hand fasting. Come along, the priest is itching to get at the ale, and we cannot hold him back for long!”
Bronwyn pulled Orla’s sword from where she’d tucked it into her dress’s belt and handed it back to her. The little woman cackled, sliced the air with it, and put it into her scabbard.
She took Bronwyn’s hand and led the two relative giants through the crowd. It struck Bronwyn as odd that so few of the others paid them any mind; was there a reverse glamour at work, making these Little People see only what they wanted or expected?
They reached the altar, which was a platform carved into the stone wall. It was waist-high to Bronwyn, and Orla quickly dashed up the steps. At the top, the man she’d introduced as her betrothed waited in a dashing caped outfit, and an old man with a long white beard tossed over his right shoulder stood behind a podium carved from a single piece of wood. “Are we ready, then?” the priest asked.
“We are,” Orla said. Suddenly her eyes lit up. “I’ve got me an idea! This woman is my sister by blood oath; can you not bind her and her beloved first, as a way of blessing me and mine?”
The priest thought it over. “That is possible, if she and he agree. Do you?”
Bronwyn, surprised by the offer, looked back at Craig. “What do you think?”
He shrugged, then nodded.
“You do know we’re already married, right?” she said.
“Married by the laws of your world, not by the laws of ours,” the old priest said. “Very different realms. Step forward, both of you, and hold out your left hands.”
Craig moved up beside Bronwyn, and they put out their hands, wrists crossed. The priest draped a piece of unnaturally heavy cord, no bigger around than a strand of thread, across their wrists. He cleared his throat, took a drink from a tankard on the floor beside him, then said in a surprisingly loud voice, “Today by their own free will, we bind these two to each other, and to our people. Do you, my lord, agree to love your lady, and care for her, and provide a firm hand for your children?”
“I do,” Craig said.
“And do you, my lady, promise to love and obey your lord, greet him with a smile and a warm meal on the table at the end of his work day, and bear his sons?”
Bronwyn turned to glare at Craig. “Not for this guy.” She pulled her hand away. “All right, where is he?”
“Where is who?” the priest inquired.
“My real husband. You can kill the glamour now, too.”
“Craig” started to speak, then sighed and vanished. In his place stood one of the Little People, young and handsome and clearly disappointed.
Bronwyn looked around. The previous disinterest was gone, and now everyone watched her. She said loudly, ”Okay, the rest of you—where’s Craig? Tell me now, or I start breaking things, starting with some tiny little skulls.”
A commotion at the tunnel entrance heralded Craig as he walked out on his knees. He was blindfolded, and his wrists were bound in front of him. He was disheveled and looked annoyed, but not angry. Behind him came a line of little warriors armed with spears and shields.
“Bronwyn?” he called.
“Right here. You all right?”
“Yeah.” He stood up and said, “They grabbed me back at the first bend. I could’ve probably gotten past them, but it seemed like overkill to hurt a bunch of them without knowing why.” He reached for the blindfold.
“Just leave that for a minute,” she said. Craig knew what the Tufa were, and he’d seen the Yunwi Tsunsdi at the wedding, but this was a level of folkloric weirdness even he might not be able to handle.
“How do I know it’s really you, then?” he asked.
She walked over and kissed him like they were about to go to bed. “Now?”
“Whatever you say, ma’am.”
Bronwyn turned back to Orla. “You’ve got a lot of swords in here, and you can probably kill me with them eventually, but I’ll take a lot of you down with me, and do as much damage as I possibly can if you give me any more bullshit. What’s this about, anyway?”
Orla looked around, then lowered her head and sighed. “I have not been totally honest with you. I’m not just a warrior. I’m the queen of these good folk. Once we roamed under every hill and mountain in this land, but over the years we’ve faded down to this one tiny tribe, hiding like moles from the world outside. In another thousand years we’ll be gone.”
Bronwyn nodded. “We have the same worries.”
“It is thought that by bringing in women from the outside—women like you, who have the Old Ways in their blood as much as we—that we could once again breed the warriors and explorers who could help reclaim our former lands.”
Holy shit, she thought. Rockhouse was right after all: she had put all the Tufa in danger. “Your former lands are gone, you know. They’re subdivisions and parking lots now.”
“My blood sister, you know that the lands we crave are not entirely of this world, any more than your people’s home is.”
Bronwyn looked down at the man who’d been her wee intended. “And you: You do know size matters, right?”
“Yes, but if you had spoken the vows, that would’ve resolved itself,” he said. “But you didn’t.”
“No, and I don’t know any Tufa who would. We have our own problems.”
He smiled sadly. “Your loss, sister of my queen.”
“And ours,” Orla said. “It appears we’re doomed.”
Bronwyn was angry, but also empathized with them. Still, she couldn’t leave it like this, knowing they might try again with another Tufa. “Okay—Orla? I charge you with betraying a sister, in direct violation of our agreement that day in the woods.”
The room filled with the sudden clatter and clang of weapons being drawn, all of them pointed at Bronwyn.
Outraged, Orla bellowed, “I did not betray—”
Bronwyn shouted her down. “You tricked me into coming here for reasons that had nothing to do with sharing a wedding dress. That’s a betrayal, and I’m willing to fight with you to prove it. You want to go a few rounds?”
Orla looked as if she might, indeed, want that. Then she sighed. “You are right. I have lost my honor.”
Her people lowered their weapons and murmured.
“Yes, you have,” Bronwyn agreed. “And to get it back, I want your word that neither you, nor any of your people, will go after any other Tufa women, ever. Ever. Am I clear?”
“Out loud,” Bronwyn said.
“I give you my word. We will not trouble any Tufa woman.”
Bronwyn took Craig’s hand. “Come on, honey. Let’s get out of here.”
“Isn’t there something we can do to help them?” Craig said. He was still blindfolded, but he’d heard it all and, as always, sympathized with those in trouble.
“No,” Bronwyn said. “They have to figure it out themselves, just like we have to.” She led him back to the tunnel and helped him feel his way into the low space. This time she let him go first so she could keep an eye on him all the way out. When they emerged, the lantern was gone, and as soon as she looked away, the passage into the hillside vanished.
Craig took off the blindfold. “So I heard a little bit of what was going on while they had me in the tunnel. How did you know it wasn’t me?”
“Because there’s no way you would’ve agreed to those vows.”
He put his arms around her. “Oh? You don’t think I can provide a firm hand?”
“Not against children.”
“There are no children here right now. And we’re already covered with dirt.”
She put her arms around his neck and pressed herself against him. “And we’re married, so we can do anything we want, is that it?”
“That’s part of it, for sure.”
“Does this sudden surge of excitement have anything to do with almost dying in there?”
“We didn’t almost die,” he said.
She kissed him, content to keep the truth to herself that most humans who encountered the Yunwi Tsunsdi never returned. And had she spoken the vows, she would’ve been trapped there forever as a Yunwi Tsunsdi concubine.
“No, we didn’t,” she agreed, her first lie as a married woman. “So now what?”
“I see some mighty comfortable-looking moss over there.”
And so Bronwyn consummated her second almost-wedding right there on the forest floor beneath the moon. The night wind rustled the trees gently above them, matching its sighs to her own.
“The Two Weddings of Bronwyn Hyatt” copyright © 2015 by Alex Bledsoe
Illustration copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Bartlett