Eilean Ren

Capital of Fae Realm

Royal Home

 

Beneath the alabaster arches over my narrow windows, something flutters against my curtains, interrupting my reading. I squint toward the sound as I rub my earpoints. They’re sore from concentration. I’ve spent my half-day studying the techniques recorded in the leather-bound journal of a master arborist.

A tree in my garden needs pruning before the Moontide festival. The tree that I’ve come to think of as Seesha’s Tree. My little friend will be so pleased with her new home. Fesh designed it well and picked the perfect branch. The two of them favor my Mergone and not many Fae can say a pair of the winged creatures live nearby.

Surrounded by elaborate furnishings, but barren walls, I’ve kept the drapes drawn against the white light from our orb. Unlike many of the other worlds Arún has visited, we do not have a sun-star here, but we have captured the same chemical reaction in a sphere situated at the tip of the tower that stands in the center of our capital. The reaction is much smaller, but it brightens the city and keeps us warm.

Dark and quiet better suits the melancholy that haunts me today, preferring self-pity over action. Action is for heroes.

There’s more scratching at the silks. “Who’s there?” I call. No one answers, but it sounds like a bird trapped in a net. Helpless creatures always pull me from my cloistering, even when my family cannot. When I hear a bzzzt followed by the soft tinkling of bells, I know what’s found me.

I cross the polished floor, veins of sparkling gems crisscross the expanse, broken by white woven throw rugs that my mother had cleaned last week. It was a less-than-covert attempt to force me from my rooms. It worked for a time. Though, reading on Arún’s balcony probably wasn’t the ousting my mother had in mind.

When I throw back the fabrics, light pours in and a green Hum-Fairy hovers at my eyelevel with crossed arms and a frustrated twist to her mouth. She’s round and curvy, but still only as big as my palm. Her wings are obscured by her movement as she zips one way and then another, a glowing blur-in-motion.

“Oh, Seesha, I’m glad you’re home,” I say and lift my hand to her. I’ve been favored with a long-time friendship of Hum-Fairies. They’re gentle creatures, always traveling, but elusive in the realms.

She settles on my fingertips, stepping down into my palm, the tops of her wings stretch out above and behind her like the ornate fins of a fishdancer, and the bottoms pool in soft, feathery puddles on my skin. She’s covered in luminescent plumage, something between a Skybird and a fairy; sentient, but not Fae. She folds her arms again and taps her foot on the fleshy part of my hand, just below my thumb.

“Were you resting? Have you found someone to be the night to your moon?” she asks, her ever-changing mood already shifting from irritated to concerned to elated. Despite her lack of vocal cords, and though her short beak doesn’t move, I can hear her voice as easily as if she’d spoken in my ear. Every Fae can communicate with a Hum-Fairy, but time and practice makes telepathic communication with Hum-Fairies effortless. She’s been my friend for years, and she knows how my disposition turns. “Have you lost color since I’ve been gone?”

“There is no one. This has not changed.” I say. “And I was reading. The Mergone needs pruning. My memory needed refreshing on technique.” She doesn’t know about Arún or she wouldn’t begin as though nothing has changed. “And I’m as pale as I’ve always been, from my milk skin to my colorless eyes to my snowy hair.”

“My home is still here.” Her statement is part question.

“Fesh has been waiting for you.” I beam at her, dancing on my toes, happy she’s returned from the human realm. Fesh will be so pleased. He won’t just be overjoyed; he’ll get bright orange and spin loops in the air. “He asked me to help him build something for you. He said you would be back soon.”

Seesha strokes her chin. “We spent our sleeping dreams together. He can always tell when I’m ready to return. The same as I can with him.” She leaps into the air, her eyes twinkling. “I’ll meet you there.” She’s thinking of Fesh and seeing him. He always brings a languid smile to her face. Wanderlust tickles her feet. Lately, she’s been in New York at Arún’s request.

“See you both in a bit,” I say.

“We must find you a mate, Ishka. It isn’t good to be alone,” she says. And then, with a zip, she races away toward her mate. The sound of tiny wind chimes trails after her. I sense her until she’s too far away. Proximity effects the telepathic connection.

I tie my slippers slowly. Seesha’s going to love the surprise Fesh planned and I want to see it, but giving Seesha alone time with Fesh is probably the less-selfish choice. I don’t bother with a formal veil since I won’t see dignitaries or politician in this part of the palace. Not anymore. Not since I made my position clear.

I open the door, surprising a maid as she hurried from one place to another. Her eyes widen when she sees my bare face. Or maybe she’s startled that I’ve not met an untimely demise as the rumors proclaim.

“Princess,” she says, dropping a nervous curtsy. “May I assist you?”

“No, I’ll find my own way.” I turn, not willing to endure the censure or the pity.

I am a princess that will never be queen. A blighted daughter that will never become a mother.

Down the hall, I stop long enough to study a tapestry depicting Arún saving a small village in another realm, riding his winged steed to triumph. My brother was always the hero.

He’d say, “Enjoy this peace,” with his pale sideways grin. Then he’d kiss my cheek, fashion a geode portal, and return to wait for his mate to arrive in New York. It wasn’t until he left home to stay in a foreign land that he appreciated our city.

After his marriage, he brought his wife to meet us. She delighted me, captivating me with her sometimes sardonic humor and unintentional disregard for our ways. She was a starburst in my shadows, unlike any other I’ve known.

Two corridors and many thoughts later, I find myself at the door to my brother’s unoccupied apartment rather than standing at the gate to my private topiary.

Arún loved to be the hero and look what it earned him: a self-sacrificing death. Now Arún is gone, and the dead cannot grant permission. I let myself into his rooms without hesitation.

From the balcony off of his living quarters, I study the beautiful city formed from ancient stone by my ancestors. Circles of color illuminate the streets as Fae use their magic in their daily life. Each Fae possesses a shade of magic unique to them, and a rainbow of spheres dance in the light from the spire at the center of the acropolis.

The trees on the promenade below are orange, yellow, red, and Arún’s favorite shade of green. The scented breeze whispers of the blooms of the bell-vines growing inside my walled garden. Moisture rises up from the ground to water all our living things. Cisterns never run dry, and fountains sparkle, draped in diamond-water cascades.

Arún’s mate did not weep as she escorted his body through our streets, but I heard her cry echo my own even as I found comfort between the fountains with the Hum-Fairies that choose to live near the ancient Mergone.

 

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Leaf clippings from the thick-trunked Mergone branch fall around my bare feet. Our lightstay lamps are made from cultivated Mergone wood. The sap doesn’t evaporate after cutting and holds magic longer than anything else. One spell can light a home all night. The Mergone are carefully cultivated here.

I’m pruning with magic-made shears, knitting molecules and cells back together, healing the tree even as I take from it. I wiggle my toes in the soft grasses and hum a tune the musicians played while I ate mid-day meal. A zephyr stirs the dress I wear.

Royalty employs the best seamstresses, skilled in magically animating prints. And this dress is one of my favorites, giving me hope in the possibility of a happiness beyond. The fabric spins with moving reproductions of galaxies from across the realms.

We’re at the center of the circle-shaped space, enclosed by castle walls and surrounded by a manicured garden, at the center of a sun shape formed from mountain stone. The ancient hardwood is the crown of my garden, surrounded by a lush green carpet and blooms of all shapes and colors.

Seesha zooms by my head and then settles on my shoulder, moving in quick little jerks as she studies our surroundings. “Don’t trim our branch. It’s perfect.”

“Mmmm,” I agree, moving past the wide and gnarled limb where Fesh asked me to hang their little tree house. Seesha had always dreamed of living in the majestic tree. Just outside their tiny home, we put a glassed-in swing. When either of them sits in it, the globe glows as bright as a lightstay spell lamp. “I haven’t seen Fesh this morning,” I say.

“He’s gone to fetch my mother from across the city,” Seesha answers. “She was offered a home by a musician when she paused to hear a melody.” My little friend darts from my shoulder to her gently swaying swing.

I envy Seesha’s freedom. All over our kingdom, when a Fae sees a Hum-Fairy, they are welcomed, invited in, provided a home, but the opportunity to refuse or move at any time. They are a good omen. But their lives are their own, their presence counted a blessing, no matter how short their stay. Capturing a Hum-Fairy, removing their free choice, is an offense punishable by exile.

A noise in the bushes pulls me from my peaceful reverie, and I stare across the lawn to the large-tailed bird shape that Arún commissioned after a bird he saw in Central Park. It was his way of sharing his travels with me. I lower my hands and the shears disappear. Dark eyes stare out at me from beneath the lifted foliage wing. A shimmer wraps around the tall, masculine figure. I take a step forward, blinking to clear my vision, but he’s gone.

“Did you see that?” Seesha says and then she zips by my head, zooming toward the shrub.

“Did you see it, too?” I jog after her, curious what creature has been caught in the greenery.

“Something’s here,” she calls behind her as she darts into the foliage.

She gasps. And then something closes. Like a box snapped shut.

A muscular man wrapped in robes, his face hidden behind a wrap of linen, bursts out and bolts across the promenade to the thick bell-vines that grow up and over the highest wall. At the base of the bulwark, he glances over his shoulder at me. Moments stretch into something longer, as he stares at me and I stare at him.

Be the night to my moon. I shake my head to banish the errant thought.

When he looks away, I tug at my skirts, lifting the hems as I go. This dress isn’t made for running. In his hand, a glass box swings at the end of a chain. He hooks the metal loop to a spot on his belt. Inside the cube, Seesha presses her tiny hands against her prison.

“Ishka…” she begins, but she’s so far that her words are too faint to make out.

“Stop,” I cry, waving my arm wildly. “You can’t take her. She’s made her home here. They will exile you.” But I’m too far to catch him. I’ve never heard of a Fae kidnapping a Hum-Fairy. It’s unthinkable. I summon magic, but I’m out of practice with attack spells. My hands tingle with the surge of energy they hold. The only formulas I can call to mind are my shears and a cloudburst.

With one hand I send a fluffy cloud to weep on his head, hoping desperately that the moisture will make the creepers slick. With the other, I send the shears toward the vines above him. But the snipping is too late and his hands must be more calloused than mine. And then he’s over the other side and into the city.

He didn’t slip. He didn’t fall. He’s escaped, and now I can’t sense Seesha’s thoughts.

When I reach the bottom of the barrier, I hesitate and press my ear to the thick stone. Footsteps are running away, but Seesha makes no sound.

My heartbeat thunders in my ears like galloping pasture hounds. I’m not made to be a hero. I bite my bottom lip. Seesha needs my help, but my veil is in my room. I haven’t been out of the castle in years. I refuse. And I haven’t gone unveiled about the city since I was a little girl.

Reasons, I have plenty.

And then I think of Fesh, home soon with Seesha’s mother, and how badly I missed her while she had been gone. They will miss her, and she is my friend.

I grasp the gnarled branch, ignoring the bite of rounded barbs in my tender skin, hauling myself up the twisted vines, avoiding the snipped ones. The wall is as wide as my arm is long, and I climb atop to stare over the city, trying to catch sight of the kidnapper. I can see the dark hood on the man receding into the distance, amid wandering shoppers and pedestrians in food row.

I look at the street below. It’s a long ways down, but I don’t have much time. The young bell-vine doesn’t cover the exterior of the wall yet. So I grab the nearest tendril, hoping it’s strong enough to bear my weight so that I can jump to the ground outside. It’s a tough plant, but I’ve never tried to swing on one before.

I turn my back to the street, blow three short breaths, and begin the descent. Half way down the wall, I run out of length. Now I have no choice but to drop.

I open my hands, becoming weightless, falling through the air, giddy with a thrill I haven’t felt since the blight burned away my wings.

And then I land in a puddle of reality as my ankles roll and the balls of my feet meet the street. Pain shoots up my legs, reminding me I’m not who I once was. Thank goodness. I gasp as I pitch forward, flailing, and a nearby woman rushes to assist, dark hair loose and flowing. She catches me before I fall forward to the pavement.

“Are you alright, Miss?” she says.

I tuck my hair behind my ear, and it is her turn to gasp. She nearly drops me when she curtsies. “Princess,” she whispers, studying my face.

Yeasty, spicy smells waft out of the bakery on the corner, and her emerald-eyed scrutiny makes me uncomfortable while I regain my balance. “What?” I bark at her, gathering my star-field skirts and preparing to run.

She startles. “Oh, nothing. I just thought you were scarred.” She lifts a hand to my jaw as if to smooth her hand along it. I scowl at her, processing her words, but say nothing. “You’re lovely. You shouldn’t hide,” she breathes, and then her eyes widen when she realizes what she’s said. She drops and her hand and curtsies again before she trots away.

Without time to correct or ponder, I bolt after the criminal, praying I haven’t lost him to the delay.

 

###

 

He leads me through the market and beyond, ducking between stalls and vendors. The streets empty of people and the buildings grow shorter as we go. This far from the orb, the shadows are larger, seeping out of the corners and alleys until I have to weave between them. While I know they can’t hurt me, I avoid them. The blight caught me in the shade.

I shiver, wrapping my arms around my middle. Crime doesn’t happen here, but I study the windows for angry faces and sneaky eyes.

The roads feel smaller, a too-tight coat, but I’ve seen the Architect’s plans. All thoroughfares in the city are the same, running in straight lines, organized and logical. This is an optical illusion, an emotional mirage.

The kidnapper slips into a doorway, and I sag against the stoop of a blackstone house. A door squeaks behind me, the wood grinding against the floor as the door is pulled open. I leap forward, but spin quickly, hand held up.

“Who’s there?” an elderly voice groans. I can’t see the face, but no more movement is made. This Fae means me no harm.

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” I say, and then I slip three stoops down.

I press my ear to the roughhewn door he entered. The stranger hasn’t come out, so that means I go in. Seesha’s life may depend upon it, and I cannot bear the thought of losing her. Arún would save her.

“Everyone should try heroics at least once in their life,” he’d say, and shove me forward.

Today will be my once.

With my toes on the threshold, I summon magic, holding it in my hands, rocking back and forth. I have a grafting spell at-the-ready. I’ll use it to… tie something together. Or graft an apple tree to a peach. Maybe I can horticulture the kidnapper into submission.

I grimace and swallow. This isn’t the best hex for actively going into battle, but I can’t think. I’m not skilled at this, but I’m the only chance Seesha has.

I kick the door, but the opening isn’t dramatic and my bare feet aren’t protected. The door swings open slowly, and pain explodes in my toes, radiating up my calf. I whimper and stumble in, sputtering threats, trying to see through the rush of tears.

Blinking rapidly, I lean on the square table in the middle of the room and something crinkles under my hand. As my eyes clear, I realize that I’m leaning on a workbench and it’s covered in scraps of parchment. Under my fingers, I see a hasty scrawl that reads, “Hello, Princess. Thank you for coming.” Seesha’s prison rests at the corner, the top thrown open.

I scowl at the note. There’s something strange about that note, as though the writer knew I would be here. Then that means….

He knew I was following him the whole time.

Holding still, I glance around the room from beneath my lashes. A blaze burns in the fireplace. Lightstay lamps illuminate the room. Though the spells aren’t strong, the light is still there. I wish it was brighter.

They all brighten. Someone is reading my mind without permission.

But, rather than creating a mental block, I continue the study of my surroundings, allowing the probing. I don’t want to scare them away or inspire an attack. I have nothing to hide.

There’s a noise across the room, and my eyes are drawn to a low bed along one wall. A small someone is tucked beneath a tattered cover, and I’m drawn to the bedside. In a trance, I walk slowly toward the bed until I can study the figure tucked beneath the sheets and cover. My mouth falls open and my jaw slacks.

An ashen-skinned little girl rests in the bed. Dark veins in her cheeks mar her features like black webs. Her ear tips quiver with each breath she drags in. She has the blight.

There’s a squeak behind me and a tinkling close to my ear. In a burst of neon, Seesha dives over my shoulder to the child on the bed, hovering over her face.

“Seesha,” I gasp, waving for her, gesturing to her to follow me. “You’re free.”

“Ishka,” she says, but doesn’t act surprised or turn toward me.

I frown at her dismissal. She had been kidnapped and I am here to save her.

“Should we go?” I ask, pointing toward the door.

“Later,” she says. “Be still.”

Her command catches me off-guard. I’m not used to being bossed around by anyone, much less one so slight. She should be terrified of being trapped again.

“First, I want to…” Her words trail away.

And then I see a shadow out of the corner of my eye. And then the now-unmasked kidnapper is upon us, standing nearby. He doesn’t advance. Now is our chance.

“He’s here, Seesha. Let’s go.” And then I turn toward the door, leaping forward as though I’m being chased. Her response stops me short.

“No,” she says, settling on the chest of the frail Fae, smoothing her hands over the cheeks. “Merrick meet Ishka,” she says and the man bows to me. Then adds, “Your healers can heal this,” she says.

“Merrick?” I hiss.

“Yes, he’s a nice fellow. Your healers can heal this,” she repeats.

I throw up my hands. I’ve come to save the Hum-Fairy that’s busy worrying after her captors. “Maybe,” I growl, begrudging the admission.

“No, they can,” she says. “We will do this.” And then she shakes all over, filling the air with bell sounds.

The child’s eyelids flutter, rasping only one word. “Merrick?”

The kidnapper rushes forward, but stops when he bumps into me. He presses a scrap of paper into my palm before he kneels at the bedside.

“You brought her?” The little girl breathes the words like a prayer and joy radiates off her.

His face splits in a smile that rivals the sphere, and again my jaw slackens. His teeth, his eyes, he sparkles with mirth. I’m struck by the kindness in his face. He’s said nothing, only beamed at all of us.

Something crinkles in my hand, and I glance down at the paper. In a harsh scrawl, I read, “I cannot speak; I was born without a tongue. Forgive my impertinence. My sister, Mol, has always wanted to see a Hum-Fairy. I was worried the blight would take her before she could. I am not practiced at communicating with Hum-Fairies. I will accept my punishment.” A rush of tears floods my eyes. Merrick was his sister’s hero, too, and I see Arún sitting at my bedside while the blight burned through my insides.

I turn to my friend as she does loops in the air, to the delight of the child. “Seesha?”

She stops her acrobatics long enough to telepath. “He explained it to me as we ran. I tried to relay the message, but I couldn’t reach you, you were too far behind. I am here of my own freewill.” Seesha sprinkles starflakes over Mol, and tiny fingers reach for the falling light. “Now Merrick cannot be justly exiled,” she says with a nod. And then she beams at us both. And I hear the next words as a whisper in my mind. “Night to your moon.”

I plop into the lone chair at the roughhewn table, watching the three play, as ideas takes hold. Today might still be a day for saving.

 

###

 

I smile at the politician as he travels through the Great Hall. His eyes widen at the sight of me. I’m not so dead as they all think. I glance sideways at Merrick and the little one beyond.

Mol is dancing between the mid-day musicians, her face shows almost no trace of the blight. Her insides are like mine now, but today she plays, chasing after Seesha and Fesh. She begged the seamstresses for a dress like mine. My mother obliged. Merrick stayed by her bedside as the healers fought back death, conversing all the while with me on paper.

I don’t pull away when he reaches for my hand. I squeeze his fingers when hope tiptoes through my heart. Merrick is so different than Arún, but they’re both heroes through-and-through. And maybe they’re rubbing off on me.

****

Editor’s note: check out Henry Vogel’s “The Gift,” the winner of the Heroes contest, and Gene Kendall’s “The Problematic Journey of Mr. Scratch,” the winner of the Villains contest, and then cast your vote for who should triumph here.

Photo by Jetske19