The O’Briens had not made the decision to leave their country for the so-called New World easily. Mary O’Brien would leave behind an aged mother, and her husband Seamus, land that had been passed down through more than six generations of his family, though his share had shrunk to a mere pittance. In a good year, it barely produced enough to see his children through the winter.
They had not had a good year in a very long time.
The O’Brien children had scrappy little bodies. Many said that they came from ancient royal stock, but even if their ancestors had walked tall and proud, the hungry O’Brien brood grew slowly and sported hollow cheeks and sad, deep eyes.
Peter, at fourteen, remembered what it meant to go to bed with a belly full of good, warm food. His younger siblings had some faint recollections of those happier times—enough to make them pine over what they knew they had lost.
All, at least, except Finn. Just three, he had known little but hardship. Even as a babe, his fat cheeks had soon thinned and the roses in them had quickly faded, too.
Though the O’Briens loved all their children and had made their impossible choice so that they might find a better life in a more fruitful land, the haunting little figure of Finn often went unnoticed. Sometimes, when a well-meaning neighbor would bring the toddling thing back up the lane, Seamus O’Brien would laugh and say that his youngest boy had something a bit fae in him. His superstitious wife then swatted at him and warned him against saying such things.
The sad day finally dawned. Peter and his middle brother rose before the dawn to help their father load their meager belongings—a mere two trunk for seven souls—onto cart outside. By the time the sun rose, Brigid and Mary roused the little ones and prepared their meager breakfast. Mary held little Ciara on her lap and shared her porridge.
Brigid finished folding their thin quilts. “Alright, Finnan,” she sighed, “time for…Finn?”
For when she looked around, she discovered that her baby brother had disobeyed her. Instead of holding onto her skirts while she unmade their beds for the last time, he had wandered again.
“Finn, you wee devil, why do you never stay in one place?”
She tramped outside, thinking surely her other brothers had seen him go by. While Seamus and Peter tied down the trunks, the eight-year-old sniffled as he said goodbye to their old cow.
“You know better than to play by the cart and the animals, Finn O’Brien!” Brigid scolded, stamping her foot impatiently like the girl she still was. But no small head or body appeared, and her father looked around curiously, as if she had spoken to a ghost.
“He wandered off!” the girl cried in her defense.
Seamus chuckled and Peter snorted. They abandoned their work and began calling playfully for the youngest O’Brien.
After they had tromped through muddy fields and tall grass for fifty yards in either direction, the playful tone faded. Mary came out into the yard, too, to see what was amiss. Brigid, when her father gave up and returned empty-handed, began to sob hysterically—“I only turned my back for a minute, Da! I told him to hold onto my skirts!”
By the sun climbed to its highest and hottest place in the sky, the O’Briens enlisted the help of their neighbors. They lifted every stone, opened every door, looked under every bed and beneath every lid, but it was as if the little boy had never existed at all.
Al of them, especially Brigid and her mother, fell into melancholy. Any hope of a better life evaporated, for how could they leave Finn behind and sail across the ocean, even if they had no idea what had become of him?
Peter watched their hardships—doubly hard now—and began to curse his youngest brother’s name. The remaining O’Brien children remained skinny, hollow-eyed creatures, haunted now not only by their hunger, but also by the mysterious disappearance of Finn. In the village, where they had only rumors to sooth their growling bellies, people whispered that Seamus O’Brien’s boy had been taken by the fair folk. Then they shuddered and held their little ones closer. They would rather have another mouth to feed than lose a child to those mischievous and sometimes cruel people.
All of them pitied the O’Briens, but none could offer any help.
Tiarnan glanced through the trees and smirked at his companions. The dappled sunlight turned their fair skin varying shades of green and gold as they crept along. They could have run if they chose to, of course. When would mortals learn? They thought they knew all the boundaries between their realm and others, but how little they really knew!
Maids and children carelessly wandered through woods and meadows, heedless of where one world blended into another. They avoided the obvious markers, of course—the “fairy rings” that sprouted in fields and the circles of trees that the fair folk tended. Otherwise, though, they found mortals easy prey indeed, especially the young and the young, of course, were the only game worth catching. What use did an immortal race have for wrinkled skin and stooped skeletons? If they could not dance and make merry—or make mischief—they had no worth at all.
Something struck Tiarnan about this girl and the way she moved, the way the sun caught her hair. He usually had little interest in mortals at all but for sport, and many teased him for his haughtiness, saying he had too high an opinion of himself to think mortals so far below him.
He had inherited his attitudes. His parents taught him that they considered it inappropriate, even dangerous, for a little princeling of Faerie to interact too often with the human world. Always hungry for his parents’ approval and affection, Tiarnan stifled his curiosity and obeyed their wishes until those wishes became his own.
“Tiar,” one of the friends teased him, “she isn’t for you. You’ve got the fairest maid in all of Faerie all to yourself as it is!”
They all had a laugh at his expense, and Tiarnan smiled grimly around at all of them before breaking into a sly grin.
“Well you’d best not sit around admiring your catch until you’ve got her, lest she slip away from you before she’s caught,” he said sagely. They all laughed again and a few jostled him and told him he sounded just like his father. The advice held water, though, and they all turned their attention back to the wandering mortal.
She remained utterly oblivious. For all their cackling and cawing, she had never even lifted her pretty head. Yet as they crept forward, savoring the chase before it had really begun, something within Tiarnan’s breast stirred. He could neither understand nor explain why something hissed, soft as the wind: run.