HERO: Our hero is Sir John Coleville. Kind, generous, noble, and of average intelligence. His land extends from the mountains to the eastern sea, hundreds of thousands of acres.
VILLAIN: The villain is woodland fairy named Aodhamair (EE-mur) whose family suffered deeply during the Great Magic Wars. She is not content to keep her traditional place in the woods, doing pleasant, helpful things in nature. She saw power welded by men and mage, and now she is ready to rule the kingdom herself.
SETTING: Aodhamair has hundreds of loyal fairies watching over the men who live between the mountains and the sea. She believes now, three weeks before the year’s main harvest, is the right time to exploit their weak tranquility. Knowing Sir Coleville is in the south on business, she sets fire to his fields just before dusk.
The fields were still burning.
Lieutenant Aldos peered down at the ruins of peasant fields from the fastness of Cragmire Keep, his place on the wall of Mount Hyron’s oldest and strongest citadel presenting a panorama of wheat and barley rising nigh to heaven in a roiling plume of black smoke. The guard had gathered up and down the bulwark’s length, murmuring. Precious little beer for them next year, they knew that much. Precious little bread there would be either for the swelling lines of refugees that even now were wending their way toward Cragmire.
Ants on the move, though Aldos, scratching at the skin beneath his thick beard. Worker ants with their labor stripped away and nothing to fill their jaws. Such ants could bite, and Aldos knew it.
“Lieutenant, sir? Aldy, m’lad?” It was Wallace, an old campaigner tough as a root and about as bright. Still, he was the only man on the overlook who knew why Aldos wore a full beard, who understood how the sight of uncontrolled conflagration even thirty years after the Great Magic Wars caused an itch that nothing underneath heaven could scratch. Wallace wisely kept his mouth shut about that. The physicians had told Aldos that no sensation should trouble scarring as deep as his. Naturally, they were wrong.
“Wallace,” Aldos said by way of acknowledgement.
Wallace shifted in evident discomfort. “Lieutenant, your eyes work as plain as mine, plainer I reckon on account of the years don’t rest so heavily on yours, but that’s neither here nor there, if you’re taking my drift, and what I’m trying to say is you can hear the lads a-talking and them farmer and their kin will be here soon and—”
“And you’re wondering why I don’t do something? I suppose I should. Bring me one of those blasted birds.”
Wallace blanched. “Me, sir?”
“If you want action, Sergeant, you might as well make it happen yourself. Or, rather, you should leverage the situation to facilitate salutatory outcomes as our lord would say.” Aldos shook his head. “I’m sure Sir John Coleville will have a plan. Not that you or I will particularly like it.”
The technical name for the birds in question was mechanosorcerous falconiformes, but only Sir John Coleville called them that. With feathers of polished steel and minds animated by arcane energies, they were an abomination to veterans such as Aldos and Wallace, battle hardened men who’d once faced the eerie fire slung by assaulting wizards during the three-decades-removed war. Yet Sir John Coleville showed no compunction about combining machines and magic, just as long as it helped him meet self-imposed monthly quotas. In fact, it was an opportunity to bolster the lumber production of the many thousand spans of his league that had brought him south before the fires broke out. He was attempting to calculate by hand the net present values of income streams from timber when a mechanosorcerous falconiform with a gold crest alighted on his coach.
“Ah, Brightbeak, it’s good to see you! Come here and give me a hand (metaphorically speaking, of course) with these sums. I’m afraid I’m terrible at calculating with ink and paper.”
“my liege,” said the bird in a voice like wind scouring snow from a frostbitten tundra, “i bring tidings of woe. fires have utterly consumed the fruits of the field.”
“Oh. My. I see.” Sir John Coleville stroked a goatee that did nothing to hide his weak chin.
“your people flee in panic. your men yearn for the sweet song of singing steel and the comfort of battle. the hour requires decisive action.”
“Then decisive action we must offer. Run a binomial distribution to determine the probability of all 178 parcels about Cragmire combusting simultaneously. Run a linear regression, too, just to be sure. Then compare the results to all the usual suspects in the surrounding realms. No one upsets my production schedule without prior notification.”
The refugees packed within and without the walls of Cragmire Keep. Many had constructed temporary shelters beneath which to sleep. The Bagpiper families were kept at some distance down the high road, making their camps near Loch Lomond, an ugly rock protruding from the side of Mount Hyron. That alone helped maintain a measure of peace for everybody, but this wasn’t sustainable for long.
The next day, new things came. First, bowls of dew-covered strawberries appeared next to every shelter. Next, the Bagpipers came down to the Keep to say a small stream of sweet water had begun to flow from Loch Lomond—best water they’d ever tasted. The following morning, three wagons full of wheat came rolling up to the refugee camp. The horses had no driver and the carts were almost overflowing with grain.
Bruce the Robert, one of Lieutenant Aldos’ head guards, inspected the wagon first. Everything looked and smelled completely natural except one thing, a small note on the seat of the first wagon. It read, “We, the Faire of Aodhamair’s Wood, regret your ill-suffering. Please accept these wish-gifts to help simplify your conditioning. We desperately love your hearts.”
Bruce called out to the crowd before him. “It’s all from the Woodland Fay. They want to help, I think. Could brush up on the King’s English, if you ask me.”
The children, most of whom had been saying the strawberries were from the fairies, were overjoyed. They danced and sang, while their parents unloaded the carts and led the horses back outside the Keep.
“Aren’t we going to keep the horses too?” one man asked.
“Nah,” said Bruce. “D’you remember that old story about the city that was sacked because they were stupid enough to take a gift horse inside the gates? A bunch of tiny soldiers had stuff themselves inside the horse’s mouth and got vomited out at night to attack from the inside. We ain’t falling for that. Always look a gift horse in the mouth, as my Gran used to say.”
“But what if they’s hid inside all that wheat?”
“Nah, that’s loony.” He smacked the horses’ backsides to get them trotting down the road.
To Lieutenant Aldos, Sir John Coleville’s head looked a little like a turnip when he shook it. It was something about the way the thick fringe of hair beneath his egg-bald pate flew out as he whipped it side to side in defiant negation.
“No, no, no, Brightbeak. My grasp of sums might not be as strong as yours, true. But whoever did this couldn’t have been Aodhamair.”
“Whomever, my lord,” Aldos said, then caught himself, grimacing. Sir John Coleville hated to have his grammar corrected.
The mechanosorcerous falconiform’s metal beak clacked. “conflagrations erupted simultaneously at each parcel, which bespeaks a high degree of organization. also, the strike occurred when you were not at your ancestral hall, suggesting geographic proximity. only two realms lie within a ten-day journey of Cragmire — the sylvan halls of Aodhamair the Shrewd and the barren hills of Ygonic the Eldritch. given standard speeds of travel on horseback, there is only a 29.6643% chance that Ygonic could’ve approached the Keep and departed before your arrival. but Aodhamair might manage the same 99.7% of the time.”
Sir John Coleville’s head mimicked a domesticated root a second time. “Ah, Brightbeak, I see you have been working on your rhetoric! Your argument sounds convincing, but there are more holes in it than a … than a …”
“A cheese, my lord?” Aldos interjected. “A moth-eaten vest? A rusty sieve? A beggar’s sock?” Sir John Coleville’s irritated glance made him molar the inside of his cheek. There was something about his lord’s demeanor that brought out the pedant in Aldos.
“Yes, yes, take your pick,” Sir John Coleville said. “The point is that your assumptions are all wrong, Brightbeak.”
“yet i am filled with the very breath that birthed the universe.” The sound of the bird’s voice made Aldos’ head whirl with images of a black firmament suddenly blooming with uncountable, bejeweled stars.
Sir John Coleville smiled indulgently. “Be that as it may, what if the data is distributed exponentially?”
“such a distribution is inapplicable to the evidence we have at hand –”
“Okay, fine, but when anyone hear of a faire burning fields? They’re ‘one with the great chain of nature’ and all that. Plus, they’re so little. And Ygonic, well, did you hear they call her Treeblighter now? I was going to see her about taking some timber off her hands, or whatever she currently has that serves as them, but you interrupted me with this fire business, Brightbeak. She might burn a field if it came to it, but I think she prefers large-scale destruction. More of a spectacle that way. In fact, now that I think about it I don’t see that anyone has to be responsible. Perhaps the whole thing was … ah … what’s the word …”
It was out before Aldos could help himself: “Spontaneous. My lord,” he added, a bit belatedly.
Sir John Coleville’s scowl could’ve curdled fresh milk. “Thank you, Lieutenant Aldos. Well, the one thing we’re sure of is that it can’t have been Aodhamair.”
“‘Couldn’t have been,’ my lord. ‘Can’t’ implies impossibility, but as Brightbeak has already said, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. In fact, some would say it’s virtually certain. Uh, some, but not me. My lord. Sir.”
“Lieutenant Aldos,” Sir John Coleville said (whose head was beginning to now resemble a boiled turnip), “please tell us just why you are here.”
Aldos swallowed against the lump in his throat. “Wheat, my lord.”
“Wheat? What about it? The wheat’s all burned up.”
“No, my lord. That is to say, not all of it. Three cartfuls of it appeared at Cragmire this morning along with a note. Apparently, it’s from the faires. They want to ‘simplify our conditioning.'”
Sir John Coleville roared with laughter. “See, Brightbeak? Why, Aodhamair’s folk only want to help. Well, Aldos, just present me with the Form 472-C that came with the wheat and we can fill the people’s bellies.”
“My lord. About that. There was no form.”
“What? No form? Aldos, are you absolutely sure?”
“Yes, my lord. And I know you have standards, but your servants could soon begin to starve without –”
“Without what, lieutenant? Without suspect wheat that no one has certified as being grown without synthetic inputs in a sustainable, properly subsidized manner?” He sniffed. “I think the people would rather starve than stoop so low. Have it burned.”
“You heard me, Lieutenant Aldos. Build a big bonfire and have the whole lot burned. I will not allow momentary discomfort to cause me to compromise our system.”
“Yes, my lord,” Aldos said. He wondered if his guards could manage such a thing with a whole horde of hungry peasants looking on. He wondered if they would given that those peasants were there sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, the wives of their youth.
And as he strode from the hall, he wondered how a creation of metal and magic could manage to seem like it was smirking.
Two days passed, and the fairies kept the scent of burning on the wind. Dry, burnt air was bound to enflame their empty stomachs and burn their weary hearts, Aodhamair imagined. But their stomachs were not too empty. She continued to send them fresh berries in the morning. That senseless fool Sir Coleville, whose tart face would sour ripe grapes, even he, a sow’s ear, would not turn away their little breakfast gifts like he did their wheat.
The spies who had stowed away in the wheat had been able to see how the people rejoiced at the gift and praised her name. Had she lost those fairies in the unthinkable fire—who would burn free grain?—there would have been consequences, but her folk saw what they wanted to see and flew home in time. Would this light-handed diplomacy win the people’s hearts? If she announced her desire to reign over them, to bless them with her all of her benevolence, to grace them with all of her wisdom, would they be so persuaded as to throw Sir Coleville under the tower and bow to her?
Aodhamair walked lightly over moss-cover stones by the river bank as she considered her options. Perhaps she could put them to sleep with the berries. Maybe she should plant vines that would tear their Keep to the ground. Should she march in open war as men do when their lust for power consumes them?
Her thoughts broke at the juicy sound of a bullfrog bellowing from a hole down river. It’s brutal echoes made her blink in flutter. Then she smiled and took to the air. Yes, she would scorn the knave Coleville, not like men, but like a Faire Queen.
The next morning, well before the dawn’s first light brightened any hill, her folk had enchanted the Bagpiper families to rise, heads full of wild and wonderful dreams, take up their pipes and march down the high road to the Cragmire Keep, blowing profusely. The deep, rich drone of dozens of bagpipes buffeted the rocky fortress, blistering ears for young and old. Feet stamped. Children wailed. Words began trading places. Guards from the wall cried out, “What’s all this?” without receiving answers, and of course, they took no further action in deference to protocol. “What’s all this?” must have its reply before action on what it all is can occur.
Aodhamair laughed at the sound she could hear from miles away. If Knave Coleville wanted order above all, she laughed, he would not have it.
By the second day, Wallace had started in with the similes.
“It’s like a brace o’ cats being skinned alive, Aldy, m’boy. It’s like the bellowing me mother-in-law (rest her poor soul) would let out when plucking them hairs that grew on her upper lip. It’s like trying to mash a bowl of faire warriors to serve as your dinnertime taters.”
“Yes,” Aldos muttered, stroking his beard as he watched the Bagpiper family turn another lap before the Keep, puffing the whole while on their namesake instruments. “It’s all so beautiful, how can we not have music?”
Wallace screwed up his face. “I wouldn’t say beautiful, Lieutenant. More like (to use them sovereign-sized words) cacophonous and raucous and—”
“I didn’t say it. Horace Bagpiper did when I went to speak with him this morning.” Aldos left out the vacant look in the man’s eyes, how his ceaseless marching made blood squelch from his tattered boots with every step, the way his lips cracked as the spoke around the bagpipes’ worn reed. “You may be on to something with your talk of faires, Wallace.”
“I might, sir?”
“Yes. I think I need to talk with our lord. Or at least try to talk with him.”
Sir John Coleville hadn’t been seen much outside of his halls in the past 48 hours. The common folk muttered that the madness which had claimed the Bagpipers must’ve fallen on him as well. The garrison complained that the rocky slopes which had been hollowed out to hold the lord’s halls insulated him from the racket. Aldos suspected something far simple kept Sir John Coleville deep within his abode.
“Ah, Lieutenant Aldos! Good to see you. We were just going over some projections for a new acquisition. Brightbeak had suggested—”
“flesh fades even as the grass, and much study wearies the mind. allow your faithful man to speak his piece and return to his duties.” The bird’s words flared out like sparks from a forge.
“Yes, yes, very good, Brightbeak. We still have a lot to finalize. With what can I help you, Lieutenant?”
“My lord, I am here about the ruckus outside the keep.”
Sir John Coleville pursed his lips. “Ruckus? What ruckus?”
At that very moment, the bagpipes crescendoed as one from a faint screeching to a tortured wail that sounded as if it would rend the fabric of reality itself.
“That ruckus, sir.”
“You mean the Bagpipers? Why, it sounds as though the whole clan is out there.”
“Yes, sir. They are. I suspect that something has—”
Sir John Coleville clapped his hands. “How splendid! How marvelous!”
“To think that for the past two days this family has joined together to lift up our stricken community in song. It lifts my heart almost as much as the music itself. Lieutenant Aldos, don’t you think the key of B minor has a certain plangent splendor?”
“But, my lord, it has driven the people to near madness.” Aldos said. Wracking his mind, he added, “Plus, they have been performing in public without proper permitting. Don’t they need to file a … a …”
“form 7835-J,” Brightbeak croaked.
“Nonsense,” Sir John Coleville said. “I will not allow minor bureaucratic infringements to interrupt such lovely tunes. If my people don’t appreciate the Bagpipers’ efforts, then bring them into the shelter of my very hall.”
“But, sir. My lord. Sir. I myself spoke with Horace Bagpiper, and I fear the whole lot may be enchant—”
The metal bird clacked its beak by way of interruption. “You have your orders. Obey them and bring the Bagpiper family here.”
And so Aldos did, fearful that his men would break into full revolt as the Bagpipers drew near. He needn’t have worried. They had barely reached Sir John Coleville’s hall when they all as one fell dead from exhaustion.
When the moon rose that night, the people sheltering in the Keep thought they heard the bagpipers playing on the wind. One woman said it sounded as like an echo, but another said it sounded far off and was closing in on them. “Are they ghost pipers, bringing the final judgment down on our heads?” they asked. “Have we disturbed the spirits of the dead by sheltering here?”
Had it been possible to disturb evil, or at least annoying, spirits Aodhamair would gladly have directed them to Coleville’s congregation, but no matter what she tried, nothing had provoked them from their eternal slumber. She could promise them nothing, and her efforts to antagonize them proved fruitless. They remained dead to the world. So she had directed some of her people to imitate bagpiping to give the illusion of a haunting following the unfortunate deaths of Coleville’s bagpipers.
But the people would not turn to her over these irritations, and they would not even think of turning to her until she offered to lead them. So she devised another plan.
In the wee hours before dawn, her most beautiful siren found her way through the windows and vents of the Keep to the place where Sir Coleville slept, and in her most beguiling voice, she called to him. “John, John, come out. Come with me.” She whispered like a song into the bureaucrat’s room, singing of love and inspection forms, water purity and prevailing interest. Following her into the mountain to sit with her at the spring-side at this very moment would give him a wonderful return on a minimal investment.
“It’s a win-win, John,” she gushed, “a turn-key solution that will synergize your people for a brighter tomorrow.”
At the same time, other fairies had snuck into shelters and family quarters to whisper to the child, who are always the most receptive to faire words. They seeded their dreams with visions of the Faire Queen’s smiles and generosity. They pulled their most comfortable feelings around the thought of living with fairies without the need for schoolwork or eating veggies before dessert. Nothing would ever harm them again—not ghosts, not fires or hunger—if the Faire Queen took them under her wing.
Hundreds of the little folk whispered in this way throughout the camp, and no one noticed the dreary-eyed man in his embroidered nightshirt, walking out of the Keep toward the high road while mumbling about the proactivity of actualizing core competencies.
The news spread like a rash. The world had woken to the wailing of bereft parents who’d discovered only empty cribs and barren beds with the rising of the sun. Lieutenant Aldos had never married, so the missing children troubled him in only an abstract way. But the disappearance of Sir John Coleville brought a fear as concrete as the cliffs upon which Cragmire Keep crouched.
“Be on the lookout for any sign of foul play,” Aldos said as he strode into the halls with Wallace at his heels. He’d insisted on bringing the old campaigner with him. The man might not be much sharper than a baby’s tooth, but you could count on him to keep his tongue. Also, he was one of the few in the garrison not crippled by grief, having outlived wife and whelps alike. Into what days have we fallen when we count a childless widower blessed? he thought, then added aloud, “It could be something small, like a bloodied corner of the bedclothes or feathers from a torn pillow—”
“or the slight splintering of a headboard consistent with a mass of 11.3398 kilos falling upon it from a height of 2.1336 meters.”
A metallic rush, and something hard and cold struck Aldos’ shoulder, then fastened to it.
Wallace lunged away, then pulled up when he saw what it was. “By the sun and moon and all the sweet stars in the sky,” he breathed.
It was Brightbeak.
Aldos had felt his own breath catch in his chest at the mechanosorcerous falconiform’s abrupt arrival, a fear that flowered into irritation. He tried to shake the unnatural thing off him, but it had fastened its claws into his chain mail. Well, if it wouldn’t leave, he’d find out what it knew.
“An impact? Do you suspect Sir John Coleville has … That is to say, do you believe an interloper might have …”
“the evidence does not suggest any physical harm. however, if a creature roughly the size of a faire had dropped into the chamber from the vents above in order to take Sir John Coleville captive, its landing might’ve left a similar mark.”
Wallace began to curse. “You did as much told ‘im, didn’t you, Aldy, m’lad? You might’ve well has said it was them blasted fae in their bloody trees with all them blasted flowers and bloody songs and …” He continued expansively, growing ever more profane as he went.
Aldos tried to screen out the old veteran’s tirade. “So the faires have him. Anyone could’ve guessed as much. But what good does that do us? The forests are vast, and we have little time. How can we hope to find him and the children?” He did not add that the consequences of recovering Sir John Coleville without the subsequent restoration of the missing youth might prove the worst possible outcome.
Brightbeak clacked its beak. “the forests are indeed large, but not beyond comprehension.” The bird began to rattle off density algorithms and total acreage yields that made Aldos’ head spin. ” the seat of their power is too much for unassisted mortals to assault, true—”
“We did just fine at the Battle of Breakers Gate. Wallace here took down three warlocks and a magus with that very axe on his belt.”
The old campaigner interrupted his invective long enough to grin triumphantly.
Brightbeak’s head had been crafted from molded titanium and studded with gold, rigid except for its clapping maw. Still, Aldos could’ve sworn it sneered.
“a keen weapon indeed, but it will not profit you unless it can cleave each and every trunk. the fae do not draw their power from abstract arcana as did the wizards of old. the shadow of branch and bough grants them their might. while the forest stands, they can still resist.”
“So we’ve returned to where we’ve started. The faires have the children and Sir John Coleville in the woods, and there’s no hope of finding them.”
“i do not believe that is the case. the children? they most certainly have the children. but i only suggested that they took Sir John Coleville. a faire cannot bear a man, so the only option is bewitchment. Sir John Coleville must needs to have reached the outskirts of the woods under his own power, and i am certain he has not.”
Aldos boggled at the bird. “But the woods are only five miles away! He’s been gone, what? Twelve—no, thirteen—hours? And you’re saying he couldn’t walk that far by himself? He mandated the Strong Body, Strong Mind Health Challenge for every able-bodied subject just last year!”
“his word is law, but who can compel him to keep it?” With a lurch, Brightbeak sprang from the Lieutenant’s shoulder. “ride north and find him. i will see to the salvation of your younglings.”
So Aldos and Wallace rode north, and true to Brightbeak’s word, found Sir John Coleville within five-score yards of the forest’s canopy. His face was red as a ripe apple, his body dewed with sweat, and he muttered to himself nonsense such as “This new paradigm will open the door to a brighter tomorrow” and “It’s the perfect productivity metric” and “What the people need to prosper is a firm hand at the wheel of the ship of state.”
The two men brought him back to the Keep. Try as they might, though, they couldn’t find a way to break him out of his stupor.
“Once the children have eaten their fill, we will return them to their homes,” the Faire Queen instructed. “We shall make a grand and yet humble procession to show the parents we have not harmed the children nor wish to harm them.”
“Will they not suspect we took the children last night?” her maiden Fionnuala asked.
“They may suspect it,” Aodhamair replied, “but I will tell them it was an evil witch who enchanted both the children and Knave Coleville, and we will free them both.”
“Perhaps then they will submit to your blessed leadership.”
“And if they do not, we may have to force them.”
Once they gathered the children for the walk back to the Keep, the winds of an approaching storm were stirring. Dark clouds loomed over the western horizon, threatening to rain on them before they could make the trip back. The children happily walked wherever the fairies asked them to, because spending time with them was an unusual treat, but a few were showing signs of weariness and fear at the gusts of wind that blew some of their guides off the path.
Aodhamair, walking near the front with her eyes skyward, began to sing walking songs to help them keep a good pace. Though the children didn’t know the words, they could repeat the syllables of each chorus well enough to enjoy it.
They had two miles left to go and the wind was not dissipating. Fionnuala fluttered up to her. “Shall I direct a team to the west to distill the wind or the storm entirely?”
“No,” she said. “That storm may be our aid. Look ahead there at something circling.”
Fionnuala looked to the sky. “Is it a bird of prey? Why don’t I recognize it?”
“It is not the hatchling of any of nature’s fowl. It is a falcon forged by smith and mage, if I see it clearly, and if I can see it, it has already seen us. There were dozens of them made for the Magic Wars years ago. At least one, we see, has survived. We could not speak to them or control them like flesh and blood beasts. We may not be able to resist this one at all, not directly. I shudder to think there could be more of them. If that knave has delivered his soul to these devils, he is a far greater fool than I had imagined.”
“And yet you think he is a great fool already.”
“Then he would be the ugliest jackanape!”
“A frail buffoon perhaps.”
“A witless, hare-brained, insipid idiot!”
“A tedious imbecile?”
“And a coward, if he has turned to the strength and counsel of this malicious machine! But we will carry on with our plan. If all goes wrong, I may send banshees to kill them all.”
Within a mile of the keep, adults saw their procession and ran to meet them. Catching every ray of sun she could through the thickening clouds, Aodhamair gently and repeatedly explained how they rescued the children from an evil witch, fed them, and were now returning them home. Many parents thanked them profusely. Others guarded their gratitude and looked worried that the fairies continued to follow them back to the Keep.
Aodhamair’s concerned smile never varied, though her ability to speak to them strained between the words. Fairies spoke to humans best through subconscious means. When they were confined to actual words, they struggled. “We imagine Sir John Coleville had an excellent concoction for repurchasing your dear ones, but that will be redundant now.”
“We don’t know what Sir John has in mind,” one mother said. “He disappeared too.”
“But Aldos found him,” a father replied. “He’d been walking toward the forest, your ladyship, under some kind of enchantment. Never made it, the ol’ boffer.”
“Is he too under magicalness?” the queen replied.
“I think he ate something,” the man said loudly. “Can your ladyship clear his head with some fresh fruit or sommat?”
“Yes, we will be all of helpfulness,” she said, smiling, her eyes on the machine circling above the Keep.
The shagreen of Aldos’ sword handle had grown slick with sweat, his hand clenching and relaxing around it almost involuntarily. The lieutenant had faced down war-maddened mages who could make a soldier’s mail burst into flame with the flick of a wrist or break a campaigner’s bones with a murmured cantrip.
None of them had terrified him as much as the Faire Queen.
She didn’t look particularly frightening to the naked eye, just a child-sized, golden-haired maiden in a flowing frock with a small stone bound to her brow with silver to denote her rank. But as he looked at her, he saw her tresses shift and flow of their own accord like a wheat field ruffled by the wind. The stone in her crown pulsed with a steady, opalescent light. And though he’d beholden her eyes as much as comfort would allow, he could not say what color they were. Still, it was some small relief that Aodhamair the Faire Queen kept glancing up to the sky where Brightbeak gyred, obviously nonplussed by the bird, who’d returned from its strange errand merely a quarter hour ago despite the inclement weather.
That was something. Now if only Aldos could figure out what to do.
Aodhamair returned her gaze to the peasantry gathered around her, a gathering that even the most charitable would’ve called ragged and dirty. “Indeed, we Folk the Fair desire only helpfulness of the heads of all,” she said. Her words were odd, but her voice rode a lilting cadence. One of her handmaidens pressed something into her grasp. Aodhamair lifted it high, proclaiming, “Start, we shall, with the healing of your ruler, Sir John Coleville!”
It was a pomegranate.
Once Aldos had tasted such a fruit, a specimen that had worked its way to him from far down south, desiccated and woody from being borne by trade caravans for months. This pomegranate was something else entirely. Swollen and ripe, the red of its skin made him think of raging warfires and the hue of a bride’s lips, desire and death bound inextricably together.
A gasp went out from the crowd.
By Aldos side, Wallace was muttering, “I’d not taste it, no sir, I’d not even touch it, not for all the gold in Cragmire Keep, not for all the flour from all the Sir’s mills, not for the timber on them thousand hills, not even for …”
He droned on, but Aldos ignored him. The Faire Queen stretched out her arm, her voice rising.
“This looks like sweetness to you, yes? But only after Sir John Coleville tastes can you sup at mine table, and more sweetness—true sweetness—your portion will be.”
Aldos’ mind whirled. A half-dozen steps. A moment to loose his sword. Another to slash it down. He had enough time to make the fae woman pay with her hand. Beyond that was anyone’s guess.
A blow heavy as a cannonball, and Aldos staggered, went to one knee.
Someone in the crowd shrieked, and confused babbling replaced the muted awe.
“compose yourself,” Brightbeak said, its words like a bitter wind whipping the last leaves from autumn trees. “doom is nigh, and soon it will all will draw to a close.”
Aldos swore. “The Everlasting Word take you, you metal monstrosity, if you have so much as lifted a pinion against—” A flash of pain brought him up short as Brightbeak slashed his face from cheek to chin, slicing the skin beneath his beard with a flick of its head.
“silence, fool. stupidity is the human’s curse. i could no more harm Sir John Coleville than assemble myself from scrap. wipe the amazement from your face, stanch your wound, and speak what i put into your mouth.”
The bird began to whisper in his ear.
“You’re mad,” Aldos sputtered upon hearing the plan. “It’ll buy only a moment’s time, Sir John Coleville will perish all the same, the people will be enslaved, and I will … will …”
The Faire Queen called from across the clearing: “Why the hesitating, man of your lord’s right hand? Be swift to bringing me for his healing.”
“are you so late in learning trust?” Brightbeak said.
Aldos took a shaky breath and turned to Aodhamair. “Let us go together, fair friend. Side by side, we shall bring healing to the Keep.”
Aodhamair stared at him for what seemed an eternity. Then a smile creased her lips, and she nodded.
Aldos clasped Wallace’s shoulder with a “Goodbye, old friend,” and fell into step with the fae. When they had walked a mere dozen paces from the crowd, he said to her, “Please, your highness, might I see this blessed fruit?”
A smell of honeysuckle—or was it carrion?—filled the air as Aodhamair held out the pomegranate. “Beautifulness, is it not? With one bite the pains of your realm will soon be vanishing—”
That was the moment Aldos chose to snatch the fruit from her, twist it apart, and spill the ruby seeds into his mouth.
There was a moment of dizzying ecstasy, pure shivering sensual pleasure, and then a spreading cold deep as his marrow, and the Faire Queen was shouting “Treason!” even as Brightbeak screeched, “behold the work of Ygonic Treeblighter, ye fae,” then the Queen’s host began toppling like felled saplings, and a great dizziness seized Aldos, and he sank to the ground, hands going out to steady himself, hands that were little more than skin-sheathed bones, carpals and metacarpals plainly visible as if viewed through gray, translucent parchment, and he opened his mouth to screen, but a black veil fell over the world …
And then he awoke. In a feathered bed. In a vaguely familiar chamber. A chamber he gradually came to recognize as belonging to Sir John Coleville.
“Am I alive?” he said to the empty air.
“indeed, you are. there was only ever a 17.3947% chance of your demise.”
Aldos pushed himself into sitting position and saw Brightbeak perched on the bed’s footboard. “What happened?”
“at the moment you consumed the fruit, a somewhat tightly constructed business deal closed with Ygonic Treeblighter, née the Eldritch, but no mouth born in this land is properly shaped to pronounce her true surname.”
“A business deal?”
“the sale of a certain tract of forest within Sir John Coleville’s domain. in truth, the destruction of that tract, although Ygonic needs no encouragement to savage leaf and bough, however enchanted they may be.”
Understanding dawned for Aldos. “She destroyed the faire forest, the seat of their power. She freed me from the cursed fruit. And, well, Sir John Coleville’s bewitchment must have likewise vanished.”
A familiar voice sounded from the direction of the great hall. “Synergize those action items! Actualize our stated mission! Categorically clean air is a fundamental right! Circle back to blue-sky thinking!”
“not exactly. it seems that Ygnoic left a single tree standing. it also seems that Aodhamair, who is now the only faire who still draws breath, believes the entire affair was part of a master plan hatched by Sir John Coleville and has bent the remaining scraps of her power to maintain his enchantment.”
“But … but who will rule the kingdom?”
It was impossible, of course, but it looked to Aldos as though Brightbeak’s metal maw curved into a smile. “i suspect it will continue much as it always has. perhaps even better. Sir John Coleville could use some assistance for the foreseeable future, and you have shown yourself faithful even unto death, Lieutenant Aldos. do you not believe that a promotion is in store for you? ‘chancellor’ has a nice ring.”
Aldos looked at the mechanosorcerous falconiformes, the very sort of creature he’d once shed blood to fight, a creature who had somehow saved both his life and realm.
“Bird,” he said, “I think the two of us could work together.”
“as do i, chancellor. as do i.”
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