Despite bearing burn scars so extensive that she struggles to use her hands, Maeve rescues her little brother from a malicious fairy prince and in the process befriends two dogs who turn out to be princes. Maeve is an introverted young woman who was severely burnt when she was young and has been living with her Uncle Bran on the island of Inis Eala. She is happy here since she is allowed to breathe in the fresh sea air and do as she wants, without restrictions. Though she can barely move her hands due to her burns, she has a gift with horses and animals – being able to soothe them and get them to obey her because of her gentleness, a skill she was able to develop with help from her Uncle Bran.
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One day, she receives a letter from her father requesting that she come home to their forest Keep in Sevenwaters. Maeve is worried about what returning to Sevenwaters will mean since her father is a Chieftain and she may be expected to fulfill her duties as a Chieftain's daughter. Will she face humiliation because her horrible scarring means she is ugly and un-marriageable? Will she ever have the same peace of mind as she did when she lived with her Uncle on Inis Eala?
When Maeve arrives at the Sevenwaters Keep deep in the forest, her family is overjoyed to see her again. She also finally gets to meet the newest member of their family – the baby brother Finbar who was born during her absence from home and has now grown into a curiously somber toddler. Maeve immediately notices that Finbar has the “seer's” eyes and that he seems to be able to see visions of the future. At the moment, Finbar is being tutored by another somber young man named Luachan, a member of the druidic order. During her stay, her father tells her his worries about Finbar and the dangers that lurk in Sevenwaters Forest. Maeve's family has been plagued by the Fey Folk who are led by the Lord of the Oak, a fey named Mac Dara. Maeve's father thinks that Finbar may be in danger since Mac Dara will look for ways to take his revenge on their family for things that have happened in the past. There has already been tension stirred up in the Sevenwater lands because a passing convoy of dignitaries from a neighboring "Chiefdoms" has gone missing.
As the days pass, Maeve feels more and more anxious to hide herself away. The Keep is full of hustle and bustle and new people visit every day, forcing Maeve to have to endure their stares and whispering, no matter how harmless. One day, Luachan shows Maeve a little cottage he knows of that lies at the edge of the Sevenwaters Forest. Maeve immediately wants to move to the cottage where she can live her own life in peace. As Maeve settles into the simple life in the cottage, she is visited by two dogs. The two dogs are starving and jittery but Maeve coaxes them to her cottage where she feeds them and slowly earns their trust. She names the bigger dog Bear, and the smaller dog, Badger. Bear is easier to get along with whereas Badger is shyer. She often gets the feeling that the two dogs can understand what she is telling them more than normal dogs can.
One day, Maeve goes on a walk with the two dogs. During their walk, the dogs suddenly become excited about something and they dash off into the woods. Maeve follows and they lead her to a clearing where they see a gruesome scene – a body hung upside down from a tree. The man belongs to the convoy of dignitaries that had disappeared weeks ago while traveling through Sevenwaters forest. Her father thinks this is the doing of Mac Dara who is trying to sabotage relations between Sevenwaters and neighboring Chiefdoms. Maeve's father decides that they may have to confront Mac Dara by luring him out of his domain in the Otherworld, the world of the fey. This may involve tricking Mac Dara by dangling his son – Cathal – as bait. Cathal is half human, half fey and his father is none other than Mac Dara. Cathal had married into the Sevenwaters family and eluded the grasp of his father for many years. After conversing more with Cathal and other advisers, Maeve's father comes to believe there may also be a “geas” on Mac Dara. A geas is a curse whose prophecy can be fulfilled at any time. Maeve's father thinks that Mac Dara is worried about the geas coming true and has therefore increased his hostilities towards Sevenwaters. Meanwhile, Maeve's father must deal with Cruinn, the neighboring Chieftain whose sons disappeared while traveling through the Sevenwaters forest.
One day Maeve goes for a walk with Finbar and the two dogs, but she loses track of Finbar. Upon hearing a shout from her little brother, she and the dogs try to find him and they wander deeper and deeper into the Sevenwaters forest. She meets a fey named Caisin Silverhair who claims to want to help Maeve find Finbar. Caisin tells Maeve that Finbar is hidden in a magical Oak tree and leaves Maeve to fend for herself. The path to the Oak tree is treacherous and many times Maeve and the dogs almost fall off steep precipices and become separated from Maeve. Eventually Maeve finds Finbar in a tree house of some sort. But moments after reuniting with Finbar, her two dogs, who were left outside the tree house, are captured by grey-cloaked people. Maeve wants to rescue the dogs, however, her first priority is to get Finbar to safety. Finbar insists that he is safe, and he tells her that he had a vision of the entire affair and that Maeve is meant to rescue the dogs.
Maeve and Finbar encounter Luachan who has been searching for them and the three of them take refuge while a storm blows through the forest. Maeve calls up Caisin Silverhair for help and the fey woman appears and transports them to her domain where they can rest. Caisin tells Maeve that her fey folk and Mac Dara's fey folk have been at odds since Mac Dara's rise to power in the Otherworld. She asks Maeve to help her topple Mac Dara from his throne once and for all by fulfilling the geas that is set on Mac Dara. According to Caisin the conditions of the geas will be fulfilled when a person who can't hold things with her hands must be able to calm down a horse while a "Chieftain's son" watches Mac Dara's demise. Because of her burns and her affinity with horses, Caisin thinks the geas involves her. She also thinks the "Chieftain's son" is Finbar. Maeve decides to help.
Caisin ends up tricking Maeve, however, as she brings Maeve and Finbar to an important fey folk conclave where fey folk can compete against Mac Dara for leadership. Caisin tricks Mac Dara into agreeing to have a competition involving human beings. She sets up the competition so it seems impossible for the human beings to triumph so that Mac Dara lets his guard down. Maeve is tied and dangled on a platform that is raised above a bonfire with her rope attached to a skittish horse so that if the horse panics, it will drag her through the fire. As a bonus feature, Caisin turns out to have been the one who had captured Bear and Badger all the along. She gives the count of 200 seconds for Maeve to keep the horse calm and command Bear and Badger to use their teeth to cut her free. Mac Dara is stunned as Caisin reveals that this may be the fulfillment of his geas.
Bear ends up chewing Maeve's bonds just in time as a horn goes off after 200 seconds and the horse bolts. Unfortunately, Bear falls into the bonfire. A moment later, Maeve sees that Bear is dangling from the lip of the platform and rushes over to try to rescue him. Luachan appears and seems bent on killing Bear for some reason but Maeve gets in the way. Luachan ends up smashing the stone onto Maeve's hand. Maeve realizes that Luachan was just trying to fulfill a portion of the geas which indicates that “a brother must sacrifice himself”, though she doesn't really understand what this has to do with the dogs. In the end, Ciaran, who is Maeve's druid Uncle suddenly appears with Cathal and they fight against Mac Dara, exiling him from the Otherworld and Sevenwaters. It is explained that Ciaran and Cathal consider themselves to be “brothers” united in their cause to fight Mac Dara and that they have therefore fulfilled the last condition of the geas that banishes Mac Dara.
Meanwhile, Bear and Badger transform back into men who turn out to be the Princeling brothers who disappeared in the Sevenwaters forest many months ago. Maeve and Bear confess their love for each other and the story ends with them getting married and the tensions between Sevenwaters and the neighboring Chiefdoms easing away.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like how the story ended with a twist in terms of how the geas on Mac Dara was fulfilled. Like Luachan, I thought that Bear and Badger would have to sacrifice themselves in order to fulfill the last condition on the geas but it turns out that the geas can be interpreted in another way, too. I like that Juliet Marillier emphasized that a geas will always be fulfilled in a way you can't foresee. These details help make the story feel mystical and magical.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was the climactic scene when Maeve had to calm a skittish horse whilst asking Bear and Badger to chew away at her bonds so that she would not get dragged into the fire. It was a really empowering scene for Maeve because she'd always felt inferior or less useful than others due to the burn scars that have incapacitated her. Through this scene, Maeve realized that she's capable of very impressive feats even though she is disabled, as she is able to engender loyalty from the animals she befriends.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Maeve had the patience and gentleness to win over the trust of the most skittish animals. This shows that she has a very pure and compassionate nature and made me root for her and hope that someone would see past her disfigurement to the person she is inside.