by Jane Sand
With art by the author.
Once upon a time there was a young fishmonger who was not a king’s daughter in disguise; nor indeed had she any ancestor with so much as a drop of aristocratic blood, not even from the wrong side of the blanket. Anyone who saw her would know it, she looked so thoroughly what she was, as if she had been born with a pickerel in her hand and her huge damp basket on her back.
One day in early spring, she carried that basket on her shoulders across the market square to her usual spot (Will the Oysterman had helped her with the basket up the cliff steps, but the walk from there to the square was level and friendship had limits). Will sat on the curb at the edge of the square, opened his baskets and began calling his wares. The fishmonger was arranging her merchandise on a piece of canvas stretched at her feet, and had just drawn her best offering of the day from her basket – a handsome tunny-fish that gleamed blue and silver in the morning sun.
In her hands it suddenly gave a great flop, and she almost dropped it. Its golden eye turned to her, and it opened its mouth and croaked,
“Young woman… I am a prince in my own land – will you…”
“Pah,” muttered the fishmonger, and she smacked the tunny’s head briskly against the curbstone before slitting its gills with her scaling knife. The fish did not speak again.
“Dora!” Will gasped, shocked despite knowing Dora. “How could you?”
The girl snorted. “Just another fae trick. He could have spoken to Justin anytime. Justin caught him in his net. Took him to shore in his boat. Sold him to me on the beach, and you helped me carry him in my basket up the cliff and nary a peep. He waits till he comes up here to start babbling? I ask you!”
This seemed incontrovertible; Will pondered it. “Still, he might have granted you a wish. Trick or no, they have to keep their word once given.”
“So they say,” Dora answered with contempt for whoever ‘they’ were. “But the fae twist their words well, and lie like breathing.”
“You always say that.”
“Because it’s true,” Dora said. “My grandmother always said so. And if you don’t believe me, then listen – really listen – to the tales everyone tells about them. Happy endings and riches for the heroes, sure – but the fae trick them into tests where they hold hot coals, and when people fail their tests for sins that any one of us might be guilty of on a bad day, they do the most cruel things to them. Nice to have a fae godparent, but that means that you get to be a target for that fae’s enemies – and the fae are always feuding. Yet people come here looking for the fae” – she glanced up mistrustfully at a stranger riding into town on a fine roan gelding – “people put out cups of milk at night for them, all to curry their favor. And it never does them any good.”
“Mussels, cockles, oysters, periwinkles!” Will shouted hopefully at the stranger, who blinked at him and rode on to the inn. “What about old man Smith, who got the pouch with the renewing coin?” he argued.
Dora shrugged. “His sons fought over who he was going to leave it to in his will. Finally he was robbed of it. Now it’s all he talks about, boring everyone to death every night at the inn. People shouldn’t take their gifts or fawn on them for favors. Don’t owe them or be owed. That’s how they draw you in.”
Will gave her a doubtful look. It was nothing she hadn’t said before, but the tunny was the first time she had ever given him such a graphic demonstration of her beliefs. “Well, but the Fae are half the life of this place. The travelers come to seek their fortunes here from over the country. And the quality folk always are courting them to be godparents, and to get heirlooms to boast of.”
“More fools they. And any of us who do the same. Really, no one’s had anything of the fae without paying the price for it. Look at my mum.”
Will couldn’t, because Dora’s mum was long dead. She’d disappeared following a wisp of mist; people had seen her crossing a field near evening, holding out her arms to it as she called out yearningly a name no one knew. She hadn’t been seen for a year and a day (or so people said) until one day she’d appeared wandering through the town, limping and mute, and had never spoken again before she died a few months later; “pined away,” people said. Dora had been raised by her grandmother afterwards – a grim, ancient woman in the marketplace shadowed by a grim, ancient little girl.
Uncomfortable silence fell between them. When a minor commotion broke out on the other side of the square, they both turned toward it with relief. “Looks like the new tailor’s wife at Sully’s stall,” Dora said, craning her neck. Sully was the biggest fishmonger at the market; his stall was always impressively stocked with the largest fish brought by wagon from the mainland harbor, where the trawlers moored. But rumor had it that he made his older fish look youthful with long baths in brine, and Sully took great offense at housewives who suspiciously poked his fishes’ bellies and eyes before buying.
Will grinned. “Do you think he’ll…”
A shriek from the center of the gawking crowd. Sully had slapped the tailor’s wife in the face with a wet and shiny pickerel. The tailor’s wife erupted from the crowd shouting threats that her husband knew the squire and Sully would rue the day. Her maid followed behind her. Dora saw that it was Mattie, the costermonger’s daughter. “Fish, fresh and quivering!” Dora called out hopefully. Beside her she felt Will sit up straight at the sight of Mattie.
The new tailor’s wife plump right cheek was still slightly redder than the left one. “Matilda says you sell fish, young woman. Do you have something large? My husband has invited the guild heads to supper, and we need to do them proud.”
Dora held up the tunny. “There’s this, mum.”
The prince’s size was met with a grunt of approval. The goodwife sniffed it suspiciously.
“Is it fresh?”
“It was flopping not an hour ago,” Dora said blandly. “I vow it.”
The woman haggled, but finally settled for a florin if Dora would scale and clean it. She left Mattie to wait there while she shopped for the rest of the fixings of her feast.
Mattie rolled her eyes at her mistress’s departing back. “Damn woman should leave me do the shopping, but it’s the first time she’s had a maid of her own and she doesn’t trust me to do anything without watching over my shoulder the whole time and telling me how I’m doing it wrong. They think that just because we’re born here, we’re all moonstruck idiots.”
Dora nodded knowingly as she cleaned the fish. “Summer people.” The multitudes of toff visitors and their entourages that came to Reneyra from the mainland to wait for Midsummer brought valuable coin with them, and employment for the year-round natives, and generously imparted lessons in snobbery for free.
“Have some oysters for lunch, Mattie,” Will said. “I’ll open them for you.”
Mattie smiled at him.
Dora briefly envied the reddish tones of her brown hair, her fairer skin. She and Mattie were of an age, but Dora knew Mattie looked younger – a housemaid worked indoors, avoided the sun and wind tanning and weathering her.
“Thanks, Will, but just open one. My mistress wouldn’t put up with me lingering here a moment longer than I have to.” Mattie daintily swallowed the oyster and put the rest in her basket, along with Prince Tunny, and went off. Will watched her go till she disappeared into the crowd.
Dora watched him, sidelong. It had been obvious for a while that Will wanted to court the costermonger’s daughter. Dora felt sure from Mattie’s offhand manner with Will that neither Mattie’s father nor Mattie herself were interested in a match with an orphan oyster seller with nothing to his name but a tottery hut on the beach. Will was not a realist.
“What if the tunny talks to them?” Will mused dreamily.
“Then they’d have paid a bargain price for meeting a fae’s puppet. Most of the visitors here would give their eyeteeth for that.”
“And most of the rest of us would, too.” He looked northward, where the market square ended abruptly in the steps leading down the cliffs. It gave them a good view of the sea.
Reneyra the town rested on the highest hill of Reneyra the headland – a peninsula that stretched out into the sea, a curved, crooked tongue of wooded hills that petered out in scattered reefs. An unremarkable piece of land, save for one thing.
Dora followed Will’s gaze. In fall and winter, with the way the headland curved, you could see from here how the tail of the last rise tapered uneventfully into the steel-grey sea, with a few reefs around it visible at low tide. But in spring the sea began to be blue, and it was then that cloud banks would often begin to form near the Point. As spring turned to summer the clouds would get more substantial, seeming to extend the headland to great bluish distances. The more the cloud banks looked like land, the closer the fae were said to be, until the nights when some travelers (fortunate or not, depending on your point of view) roaming among the trees could walk from the ordinary woods into the immense still oaks of that land.
Dora regarded the Point nervously as she mechanically scaled and cleaned her fish. The cloud banks were already forming, barely perceptible, but she could see the edges of the reefs looked – softened, as if seen through mist. Surely it was too early in the year for it to be starting already – not even May.
“I was digging out at the Point last summer, toward twilight,” Will said in that same dreamy tone.
Dora looked at him sharply. “That’s not safe.”
Will shrugged. “That’s why the best digging’s there – no one else comes. I saw a mermaid, out on the reef.”
Dora’s hands paused at her scaling. “And?”
“She sang. I couldn’t understand the words, I could hardly see her face across the waves, but it was the most beautiful thing…” his voice trailed off.
Dora looked at the back of his head as he gazed out to sea, felt a sudden yearning to clutch his thick brown hair in her fingers and shake some sense into him. “Look too hard on that beauty and you’re never content with a thing in this world again,” she said sharply.
He shook his head. “I could barely see her, much less look hard on her. So I dived in and swam to the reef… but she was gone when I got there.” He sighed. “Though I still could hear her song on the wind for a while, from somewhere.”
“It’s a good thing you can swim,” Dora told him. “Otherwise you’d’ve lit out anyway, and drowned. That’s what they do to you.”
“Give a man some credit, can’t you?” Will frowned. “Maybe, just maybe I wasn’t a spellbound idiot. Maybe I acted knowing what I was doing, knowing I could swim and choosing of my own free will to do a daring thing. I did it because I wanted to, not because I couldn’t help it.”
It seemed a typical fae prank they’d played on him, but given Will’s mood, she forbore to say so. Compared to a mermaid, she and Mattie were pretty much equally undesirable, but this was cold comfort. She worried about the aftereffects on him, though he hadn’t seemed any different over the past year.
Will looked out at the Point. The clouds were gathering there, mounding bluish at the horizon, as if distant mountains stretched out beyond. “The Land of Heart’s Desire, people call it,” he said softly.
“Yes, well, my gran said the heart desired a lot of wretched stupid things.”
Will laughed. At least he did not seem to be pining, the way some did who’d met fae. She finished scaling the haddock she was working on and slit its belly with a practiced stroke. The innards would usually slide out easily, but this time they fell out into her hand. There was something heavy in the pouch of its stomach, too perfectly round to be a pebble. She opened it with her knife point; the heavy thing slid out into her palm. It was a blood-flecked gold ring, graven with a delicate pattern of leaves. Will turned inquiringly at her gasp, and saw it.
It was fae work, and should have repulsed her, but the mundane magic of gold held her still, helplessly admiring the gleam, the faint orange tint to the yellow sheen attesting to the purity of the gold, resting cool and heavy in the center of her palm, as if it had grown there.
“Put it on,” Will whispered in awe.
She dashed it to the ground. Will darted for it as it rolled away chiming on the pavement.
“Don’t,” Dora snapped. She needn’t have worried; the ring winked out like a spark going cold before he could touch it.
He sat back, frowning. “It was for you.”
Dora wrung her brown braid in her hands, before remembering she had drenched them in fish guts. “Twice in one day,” she said, low. “That’s not happened before.”
Will blinked at her. “Most people here never have more than a sight of the riders at a distance in the summer. And most years the best that happens is that someone sleeps out in the woods and dreams a tip to the horse races in Houndsford. And you’re telling me this sort of thing’s been happening to you so often that it’s only strange when it happens twice in one day?”
“It’s not so bad…”
“Not that often, I mean. And only in these past few weeks.” She darted a quick glance at him. “Please don’t tell anyone.” She feared seeing anger and jealousy on his face; people in Reneyra yearned for signs like she’d seen, came from miles around every summer hoping for such a thing as she had thrown away. But he only looked – flabbergasted, she supposed.
“Why’s it happening to you?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
They both sat in silence, except for calling their wares reflexively. Now and then she glanced over at Will, saw him knit his brow and look back at her in puzzlement. Will wasn’t a fast thinker, but he was no fool. Perhaps he could think of something she hadn’t.
A tattered tabby sidled out of the alley, staring longingly at the midden heap a few yards away where Dora had tossed the fish offal, but the gulls were quarreling over it, and Grimalkin did not dare try for it. She turned her gaze to Dora and mewed plaintively. She was stunted and scrawny, but her dirty-pink dugs hung huge and pendulous.
“Another litter? For shame, little slut.” Dora relished Will’s snort of laughter. She carefully counted her fishheads, decided she could spare one, and tossed it. The cat snapped it up and dashed back into the alley before the gulls could snatch her prize.
Will spoke to her again, tentatively. “Maybe the fae are sending you things because your grandma was a witch and they think you are, too.”
Dora’s Gran would have been offended by the very idea; she’d been a fishwife by profession, but could if asked (and for a fee from those who could afford it) place a ward on your boundary stones to protect your crops from fae mischief, or your hearth, or (most importantly) the cradle of your newborn, to prevent the child from being replaced by a changeling. “My grandmother wasn’t a witch,” Dora protested. “She never did a spell. She only did the wards. That’s to keep away magic.”
Will laughed. “Magic to keep away magic.”
“It’s different,” Dora said stubbornly.
“Fine. Maybe you’re a fae’s child, then.”
“No,” Dora answered positively. “My mother ran off to the fae the year after I was born and my father’s ketch went down, not before. And Grandma always swore to me I wasn’t; she always knew about people. Besides – look at me.” Everyone knew that those with fae blood had something different, some flash of color or motion, some graceful length of limb, even an ugly feature that would have some arresting crooked charm about it. There was no arguing with the absolute ordinariness of Dora; her brown eyes, brown hair and tanned brown skin was the village average made flesh. Nor did these elements have any particular comeliness of their kind; she was short and squat-figured, and the best one could say for her blunt features were that they were on the pleasanter side of plain.
He nodded thoughtfully. The ease with which he conceded the point hurt her a little, though she couldn’t hold it against him. Will helped her with her baskets, Will was never mean for the sake of meanness, and the truth was the truth. Still, it’s not like he’s any better-looking, she thought a bit resentfully. He looked very like her (nearly all the old stock in town was at least a thirty-second cousin anyway) – the same brownness, the same blunt features and short squat build on a manly frame, the arms and shoulders disproportionately muscular from digging, in comparison to his short bandy legs. He’s no beauty himself – and damn it, I guess I am holding it against him. She talked on without much thought, to cover her own fluster. “Besides, everyone knows that people with fae blood tend to be flighty. No one ever called me flighty.”
“More grim, I’d say. Not like your grandmother, though – never saw a grimmer face on anyone.”
“She had a good deal to be grim about,” Dora said shortly. “As for fae blood, she told me that if you look back far enough, most of the village has some fae blood in them anyway… if that were all it took to get the fae’s attention, half the town would have been dragged off to the woods in the summer. The fae don’t much care for their human get.”
“Really?” Will looked at her with interest, which kept her talking, though she was not usually much of a talker.
“My gran taught me a lot about the fae – wanted me to know them when I saw them, to stay away from them.”
“Have you ever seen a full-blooded fae yourself, face to face?” Will asked skeptically.
“No, nor want to. I’ve only ever seen the riders at a distance, like you do. But she taught me.”
It was difficult to put into words all that her grandmother had told her over the years, in closed-mouth bits and pieces. “She taught me what to fear. Not people with fae blood – though she did say that a girl had to watch herself with a man with a lot of fae blood, for they can talk a girl’s knickers down more easily than most – but she said any clever man could learn to do that.” She stared down at the whiting she was scaling to hide her blush – how had she come to say that, anyway?
“My gran would show me people with fae features, throwbacks,” she hurried on. “Like Joseph, who was born with silver hair.” The boy’s hair had darkened to ordinary tow by his first birthday, but Gran had taken Dora along with her when she’d given his mother the ward for his cradle, and had privately bade Dora to look well (“– but discreetly now, don’t stare, that’s rude.”)
“Things like that, my gran said – like something rich flashing out of something ordinary. Like… like the colors you see on a plain pigeon’s neck when the sun hits it right. She said that if I learned enough, I could recognize the fae even when they try to hide – they glow with it, even if they look ordinary.”
“So… you recognize them by the silver hair, the longish ears…”
“No, not just that. Also things you can’t just see… like Poll, who can pick out a tune on the harp after hearing it once even though no one ever taught him, even though he never saw a harp till his parents brought him to town for the fair. It’s not just looks. Silas is pelted all over and is the most harmless man you ever met, but changelings look like everyone else. Even the mother may not notice… not till later, when they grow. And you know they can be dangerous.” Changelings would grow up with wild willful tempers, and an alien grace and dangerous charm that made people forgive their mischief and cruelties, before they would finally disappear from the village leaving wreckage behind them (material or otherwise) and often taking besotted innocents along, neither of them ever seen again but at a distance, among the riders. “Remember Alec, who became a highwayman?”
“That was when we were seven.” The whole town had gone to the mainland to see the hanging of the three men of Alec’s band who had been caught. Alec, of course, had not been, though the sheriff had sought him up hill and down dale. Anyone in Reneyra could have told him that Alec and his lover Morgan had gone into the woods at the end of the headland and ridden off into the mists for good.
“So your gran was keeping watch all those years, and only ever saw one changeling? Must’ve been a wearying way to live.”
“It’s not just the changelings.” Dora felt stung at the aspersion on her grandmother. “Changelings are fae, but just children. The really dangerous ones are the grown fae. They know so much magic, and they come down here to amuse themselves with it.”
Will looked at her frown, and said no more. They had never spoken of it, but Will undoubtedly knew what everyone else in town did about the peddler who had come to town fifteen years before. No one had particularly noticed him amidst the crowd of visitors that always came in the days before St. John’s Eve. It was only after he disappeared the same night as Dora’s mother that the town had compared notes, and found that to each of them the peddler had given a different name and town of origin, that the bright brass thimbles and silk ribbons he’d sold them had turned to hollow acorn shells and dried grass-blades. Dora’s gran had been less vigilant then.
Lunchtime passed (bread and salt herring) and Will stood up and stretched. “I promised the squire winkles tomorrow, and I’m out. See you at the inn tonight.” He began packing his wares. Will could cull the clams that had died in their day’s adventures and sink the sack of survivors into shallow water near his hut to live ‘til tomorrow, but Dora’s fish would not keep, and she had to stay all day at the market to sell them.
You could leave your sack here; I could cry your wares along with mine while you worked, if… she did not say it. “Are you passing by Father Theo’s?”
Will nodded. “He always needs a few logs split.”
Dora chose a medium-sized haddock, gave it a practiced sniff; it would do. “Take him this.” Dora had become a ward of Father Theo’s at fourteen and received the orphan’s pennies when her grandmother died, as Will had when his great-uncle died when he was five. They had both reached their age of majority this year, but they remembered their debts.
Will left. Dora saw him later from the bushes atop the cliff when she went to relieve herself. He was industriously digging on the beach a mile off, turning his head hopefully now and then to look at the Point.
The Hansel was especially light and airy today, the front shutters open wide to let in the spring air. Dan the innkeep looked up from the front table, where a crowd of locals were playing an impassioned game of slip-groat.
“Good to see you, lass,” he greeted her in passing, with a friendly squeeze of her shoulder. She knew he had no especial affection for her above others, only the reflex to touch random young girlflesh, but she felt a reluctant thrill just the same. Old Dan was still more handsome than a man his age had any right to be; his silver hair and beard were still streaked with black, and his nearly unlined face still could sport a charming smile. He had been a rake when young, and though his days as a great lover were over, he still liked to keep his hand in (so to speak).
A cheer from the slip-groat crowd drew his gaze back to the game. The players and the onlookers followed the sliding coins with gleaming eyes – the people of Reneyra took their games seriously, especially during the long winter when the visitors had gone and no magic was in the air. And if it were winter and nothing to worry about, she’d likely have gone over and lost herself in watching the game – the Reneyra version was excitingly cutthroat, and Suley had nearly lost an eye to a hard-shot sixpence once in a particularly high-stakes match.
But in summer the town turned to other sport. As St. John’s Eve approached and visitors started to arrive, the town would observe each new arrival – whether from the nearest mainland village or across the ocean – and eagerly drink in the fascinating details of his foreignness, the more alien the better. Betting would start on which of the many might stay in town for good – it happened every few years, and the results were observable among the faces of the town, from Hibernian Bridget to dark Suley, whose grandfather was said to have been a Barbary pirate who’d come searching for djinn (though he’d settled down rather disappointingly to be a coppersmith).
She found Bea, Ellie and Emma sitting at the benches at the front of the common room, where respectable girls of Dora’s class could indulge in the pastime of observing the latest arrivals. They were discussing the stranger who’d arrived on horseback that morning, as he was young and not ill-looking. Bridget brought Dora her usual mug of ale – she preferred cider, but ale was cheaper and she was saving money for a proper stall and a brine barrel. Even Bridget looked better than usual. It was the springtime glamour in the air; she was old enough to be Dora’s mother, but westering sun and golden firelight softened the lines on her freckled face, and brightened her red hair to fire, and the gossip about her suddenly became more believable – it was commonly said that Bridget was no better than she should be, and (the girls whispered) for silver pieces the boys gave her, she would sometimes be a good deal worse.
Dora gave the stranger a hard look as she gleaned scraps of information about him from the other girls. He was a Finn, a nobleman who’d arrived on a ship to the mainland port. No, he was a Dane, but his name was Finn, and he was nothing but a gentleman cardsharp. He was a viscount. He was a viscount’s bastard son. Thus satisfied, she shifted to a carefully chosen spot on one of the back corner benches, where experience had taught her that by some freak of echoes you could overhear the conversation from the tables near the fire, where the quality folk sat.
The stranger was sitting in one of Dan’s more comfortable chairs, and old Wimbish (Doctor Wimbish, if you please) was sitting across from him, putting away ale that Dora was certain the stranger had paid for. The scholar was as shabby as always, his fringe of iron-grey hair hanging loose to his shoulders in the old-fashioned way, while the stranger was quite properly neat and modish in white linen under an embroidered wool coat, his flaxen hair tied back in a silk ribbon. His pale face was sunburned on the cheeks and nose from his long ride to town, and he might not be considered uncomely, if you liked square jaws and blocky foreheads and angular hard features, as if he had been wrought in broad strokes with a straight chisel.
“The most extraordinary thing about the place is how ordinary it is,” Doctor Wimbish confided. “I’ve been over every inch of this peninsula. I’ve excavated its mounds. I have found nothing notable – a few potsherds, beads, a runic epitaph here or there. Nothing to indicate a great battle or the tomb of some high personage. No menhirs, no henges, no druid monuments. No…no History, you see. Nothing to explain this place.
“And yet there have been more verified fae encounters here than anywhere else in Europe. There has not passed a year in the last three centuries without at least one manifestation, and sometimes as many as a dozen – counting prophetic dreams. Gifts of faerie gold, the more durable treasures, abductions, seductions, pranks, curses and blessings. And nowhere else has such an intriguing timetable – such a tantalizing element of predictability. A peaceful, deadly dull village in the fall and winter. But in the spring the manifestations begin – reaching their peak at St. John’s Eve… a time when any man in Reneyra may hope for a word or a token from the most powerful fae. And his chances are even greater if he takes certain measures…”
“What measures, doctor?” the stranger answered, eagerly.
“For many years I have studied the folklore of this region and the occult arts. I have nearly completed my manuscript, and though of course I must keep much of my research secret ‘til publication, I have devised certain spells, charms that are most likely to draw the notice of the fae as the peak of the solstice nears. I would fain share some little – though talking is thirsty work…”
The stranger impatiently signaled Bridget. Bored, Dora let her attention lapse.
“Hi, are you making eyes at the new fellow, too?” Will dropped on the bench beside her. “I heard all the girls sighing over him – they think every toff that comes here for the summer is a beauty and a baronet, and they all fall in love.”
“Him?” Dora sniffed. “Looks carved from a turnip, he does.”
“Well, if you aren’t measuring him for a wedding coat, why are you staring at him?” He gave her a sudden sharp look. “Or are you going about your grandmother’s errands? Keeping a watch, like she did?”
Dora lowered her eyes to the table; she had been too indiscreet. “My gran told me that no matter how old and wise a fae is, it can’t make itself look like any of God’s children. So it can’t replace someone you know already. If it wants to trick you, it has to come as someone you don’t know.”
“What about changelings?”
“Even a changeling doesn’t look like the baby it replaces… trouble is, all babies look so much alike that only a mother might notice the difference – but often she tells herself she’s imagining things, and fools herself into believing it. Because her own baby’s gone, and she’d rather have a changeling than no baby at all.”
“Oof.” Will shivered.
“When the grown fae come to amuse themselves with humans, they can’t disguise themselves as friends, so they have to come as foreigners. Which is why you’ve always got to be careful with people you don’t know, because it’s hard to tell if they act and speak a little odd because they’re from the next county over or from Ireland or Nitaly somewhere, and that’s the way people are over there, or if they’re from nearby but much further away, and aren’t really people at all. You’ve always got to be wary of the stranger.”
“Father Theodore says we’re supposed to be kind to the stranger,” Will said slowly.
Dora flushed. “I help Mother Tinker. That’s charitable, and she’s as much a stranger as anyone in town.”
“Mother Tinker’s lived here for twelve years – near as long as I have.” Will looked down into his ale. “I was a stranger too, remember.”
“No. No you weren’t,” Dora protested, stricken. “You were born here. Your parents were from here. You…” She trailed off, remembering the things she had heard piecemeal over the years, about how Will had been found beside his parents when he was three. He’d sat huddled by them as they lay at the side of the road into town, where the fever had struck them down. They had gone as migrant workers to the big farms on the mainland, when Will was small, and when the plague struck they had tried to come home to Reneyra…
“I heard tell I was born here,” Will answered quietly. “But the first time I actually remember seeing the town was when Father Theo found me by the causeway and brought me home with him. I felt a stranger then, sure.”
“Will…” Dora said helplessly, wanting to apologize and not sure how, or for what.
He shrugged. “Well, that tide’s gone out.” He gestured at her mug. “You going to drink that?”
She poured the rest of her ale into his cup. He sipped thoughtfully. “Well, so how did your gran say you could recognize a disguised fae?”
She caught gratefully at the lifeline he threw her. “They get bored, and if you watch them long enough, they’ll slip – they’ll lose their temper and do a spell in the market square. Or they’ll say they’re off to the mainland a few days and you find out they haven’t been where they said they’d been, because they’ve really gone off to spend a night with their kin. Or they flit off to another town and you figure out later that they went a hundred miles between dusk and evening; they flew because they couldn’t bear the idea of two days in a stagecoach. They hate the drudgery of being human.”
“And what about him?” Will jabbed his chin at the stranger. “Is he one?”
“Most likely not.” Dora pretended to sip from her mug so she wouldn’t have to pay for a refill too soon. “A real fae couldn’t listen to an ass like old Wimbish boast about his magic without laughing in his face.”
Will smiled. “Speaking of magic and the fae, I was thinking about your problem.”
“Maybe there’s a fae in love with you,” Will said.
Dora darted him a quick glance under her lashes. There was not a hint of teasing in his expression; he was simply weighing the possibility as one among others, as if he were comparing oysters in his hands.
She forced out a brief laugh. “I’m not such a fool as that. I know that widower Carl is the best I’m likely to do,” she added, as recklessly as she dared, which wasn’t very.
“Has he made you an offer?” Will asked, with placid curiosity.
“Something like.” She could tell that Carl’s vague inquiries were based more on a shrewd calculation of the value of Dora’s small savings and her hardworking ways than on any romantic inclination for Dora herself – unless you counted his occasional assessment of her hindquarters, probably gauging her breeder’s hips for her capacity to provide him the sons he’d failed to get on his first wife.
“And will you take him?” Will asked, as placid as before. It was all a bit of gossip to him.
“Thinking about it.” She hadn’t thought much of it at all. Carl was a tanner, a profession much ranker than fish-selling, and his hands were permanently stained by his work, scaly and peeling. It would be unfair to hold that against him; it was Carl himself she drew the line at.
Now is a good time, she thought to herself. Now is a good time to say something forward, something daring, something to tell Will that Carl would be quite unthinkable if there were hope of someone else, preferably… But because beneath her blunt-spoken ways she was both proud and shy, she could not bring herself to imagine what words to use, much less to speak them.
If he won’t see it, I can’t make him, she decided, and refused to analyze the truth of the statement further.
Twilight was falling when she left the inn; at sunset respectable girls went home, lest they be thought loose. The boys, of course, could linger as long into the night as they liked.
Dora passed the butcher’s cottage. His wife kept the garden nicely; coddled lilacs spread their branches beyond the fence. Their buds were tiny purple beads, hardly any of them open yet. Dora pressed them to her face, inhaled greedily their sweet scent, still faint this early in the season. She contemplated picking some, but the butcher’s wife was fussy. Dora walked on with a sigh.
She was gloomily conscious that she smelled of her trade (even as she walked she absent-mindedly flicked fish scales off her wrists and forearms – they went everywhere, and at her Sunday bath she would even find them stuck to the back of her neck and between her shoulder blades). It was probably because of that that she always was drawn by perfumes: crushed leaves of mint and lavender, the scent of the fruit seller’s expensive oranges and lemons, the verbena sachets of rich women sweeping in and out of their carriages. The hay scent of the sun-warmed meadows outside town that she was crossing.
The fragrant breeze played on her face. It had been warm enough that morning to leave her shawl behind, and now the caressing wind made her want to whip off her old wool gown to let it blow on her bare skin.
She compromised by slipping off her shoes to walk on the grass beside the path, and knelt to pick the gorse. Its yellow flowers had a scent, sweet and nutty, but so faint you had to wallop your nose right among the blossoms to perceive it, and be mindful the spines didn’t rake your cheeks. Most of the native flowers of Reneyra were prickly, ungenerous things.
The breeze rippled the grass, cooled her face, a soft perfumed breath. She looked up and saw a lilac bush growing a few yards from the path. It was bigger than the butcher’s small shrub, the flowers a handsome purple-blue, its buds half-opened and all the sweeter for that. Dora took a deep breath, a few steps forward. The bush was huge; she could pick twenty blooming branches and not diminish its glory. She could take armfuls, fill her basket with them, put them in a bucket of well water, spread them on the floor of her hut like rushes…
It’s a garden flower, her cold common sense spoke. What’s it doing here?
She stopped, uncertainly. It had propagated, that was all. It had sent out roots or spread its seeds (how did lilac spread itself? She was no gardener, had no idea). It had spread here from the butcher’s yard, or the walled gardens of the lord’s summer cottage on the eastern shore.
She stared at the bush, at the meadow. Walking this path every day of her life, she had long since ceased to see the landscape around, but… there had been something here before? Not lilac, but something…
The breeze again, caressing her. She inhaled the scent that was like music, the warm sweetness that was lilac and lilac alone, and her eyes stung with tears at the yearning it awakened.
She stumbled backwards, turned back to the path, her heart suddenly in her throat, though she scarcely knew why. She tripped, fell flat on her face, scrambled up. The scent was all around her now, but changed. It was still sweet flower-scent, but heavy, rank. There was musk behind it, like an animal, and traces of rot.
Distant, lovely laughter chimed.
The grit of the path scraped her bare feet as she skidded to a halt. She slipped and fell heavily, gravel digging in her palms. She wanted to scramble up and keep running, but she forced herself still. Gran had always that the safest place you could be outside your own home at night was on the path. The tread of generations of mortal feet pacing out their lives in labor sanctified it, warded it most powerfully, even at midnight you were safe as long as you didn’t leave the path.
On hands and knees she turned to look back at the bush, already knowing she would not see blue flowers. They were white, white with dark pink centers, beautiful in their own right, but that heavy sweet scent that broke over her like a wave… sweetness tempting you to draw in a deeper breath, before you noticed the faintest traces of damp fur, of rotting meat – the smells of beast and death. Not lilac. Hawthorn.
She heard her grandmother’s stern voice in her mind’s ear: Pick the briar, pick the primrose, but let the hawthorn be.
She heard the drumming of hooves approaching over the fields. It can’t be, the sun’s not half down, it’s supposed to be safe till dark, no one ever sees the riders till it’s nearly midsummer… It’s never like this, never.
She raised her eyes. The riders were crossing the field.
They rode graceful mares and stallions that outmatched any Arabian she’d ever seen the lord ride, and they rode shaggy little moor ponies. They wore fine silks and brocades and tattered rags, they wore garments of leaves, they wore their bare skin, which even at this distance glowed golden and white and deep brown, and some were pelted silver and black. They wore gold and silver on their limbs, and crowns of flowers and green vines. Their graceful limbs, their exquisitely shaped features, the shine of their eyes were far clearer to her than they should have been at that distance. They were beautiful, they made your heart ache with it as you looked, and Dora looked – through her lashes, sidewise, but she looked. One raised a brazen horn to his lips and blew a deep carrying note, summoning, and for a moment she wanted to run to them, run with her arms out, as her mother was said to have run the night she left.
She forced her eyes down to the ground. She’d dropped one of her shoes in the meadow, she realized, and she certainly wasn’t going back for it now. She stared stolidly at the path, its sand and stones. Stay on the path. She scrambled to her feet and walked stiffly toward home, not looking back toward the sweet keening of flutes.
She found her shoe next day. It had been fitted on the very top of a limber fir sapling, its laces carefully knotted, its sole waving gaily at the sky in the breeze, and she’d had a dreadful time scrambling halfway up and shaking it to get it off, leaving her scratched and sore as if she’d been rolling in hedgehogs. And though after that she went home every afternoon before twilight had fair started, she could not avoid seeing that the world was going mad.
Hawthorn branches were everywhere in the village. Hawthorn was sacred to the fae. No one was supposed to ever cut it down, lest they be cursed; the only time it was permitted to pick of it was in the warm days of spring turning to summer, when it flowered. Every year toward Midsummer there had always been a few people who picked flowering boughs from the hawthorn bushes and hung them over their doors, decorated with bright ribbons and bits of colored paper, to court the favor of the fae. Father Theo had always inveighed against the custom from the pulpit and Dora’s grandmother from the market square, and most people had minded the words. But this year the branches were everywhere, over most everyone’s doorways, adorned with bows of fine silk, strung with chaplets of copper and glass beads, and even silver rings hung on them. And this year Father Theo’s preachments had a weak helpless tone to them, as if he were ordering the tide not to rise. The flowers seemed to last longer and stay more fragrant, and Dora would catch their enticing nauseous scent with every wafting breeze when she was in town; she did her best to stay away when she didn’t need to be there.
Timothy’s freshly plowed field was the best place to be looking for elf-shot; the sun highlighted their sharply faceted sides, and warmed her shoulders. It was high noon, not a shadow to be seen, the safest time of day, and she had already found two of the flint arrowheads – a productive morning and pleasant, as long as she kept her eyes off the Point. She mostly did; kept her gaze to the ground, no matter how fair the sight of the sparkling blue sea.
Three petals of sweetbriar, she told herself, and two leaves of wort. Wrap them with a lock of unspun flax around the stone arrowhead, whispering the chant Gran had taught her – the words meant nothing to her, but she could still hear her grandmother’s voice whispering them in memory’s ear and was confident she remembered them precisely. Sew the whole (taking care never to touch the stone with bare hands) in a scrap of lambskin cut to fit it – her grandmother had a hide she’d cut bits from as long as Dora could remember, and Dora had inherited it and expected it to last for years more. Soak the whole in a bucket of new-drawn well water, with a benediction and a Hail Mary, and let it dry. The lambskin would shrink tightly over the arrowhead until the sharp point burst through the leather, and the ward would be ready… ready for a new mother to plunge it into the ground beneath her newborn’s cradle, muttering the words Dora would instruct them in a whisper. Gran had said (with truth) that her wards had been dug into the dirt floors of hovels, the wooden floors of merchant’s homes, and even stuck in the cracks between the flagstones of the lord’s manor, and not one of those children had ever been replaced by a changeling.
Dora found it soothing to remember, and to chant the ward words softly under her breath as she searched among the pebbles the plow had thrown up… as long as she kept her eyes scrupulously away from the edge of the field, where the hillside dropped abruptly toward the cliffs and the sea, and she could see the Point curving toward the horizon – into a low cloud that seemed distant mountains sometimes, and at other times a walled city with delicate spires – bluish with distance, but always seeming real, no matter how changeable its aspect. The mist had come early, thicker than ever, and people would fall to gazing at the images it painted, sometimes for hours. Dora kept her gaze away, but in her mind’s eye she could see it, the lying, lovely thing.
She walked along the furrow, looking for the grey angled surface of chipped flint. She bent and pried at a likely stone with a sharpened rowan stick, and grunted in satisfaction at the sight of the jagged triangle. She picked it up carefully in a dock leaf, then turned with a jolt as she heard her name spoken.
“I knew you were looking for elf-shot!” Will called to her from the path. He came sprinting toward her across the field; it was always a bit surprising to see how well he could run on those short, bandy legs. “You always looked for it with a pointed stick, and picked it up with a leaf like that, never your bare hand.”
Dora straightened, stretching her back. “I’m not supposed to touch them with my hands, when I make the wards with them.” She dropped the arrowhead into the pouch at her waist.
Will looked over her shoulder, at the Point. “Word, the mists are thick.”
“Don’t look at them,” she snapped.
He blinked at her, shrugged. “How many arrowheads did you find?”
“Three.” She looked at him inquiringly.
“Would you give me one? For luck?” Will asked hesitantly.
“Didn’t I give you one, years ago?” She’d given elf-shot to most of the children in town at one time or another – extras her grandmother hadn’t needed for the wards. Her grandmother had disapproved, but she hadn’t forbidden it, and Dora’s knack for finding the arrowheads had made her briefly interesting to the other children.
“I was looking for it, the other day. Couldn’t find it anywhere. Let me have another?”
“For luck,” Dora said sharply. “Everyone’s looking for that, these days. What you mean is you want to draw the eye of the fae.” She bit her lip at his apologetic nod. “I told you long ago they’re no good for that, anyway, or I’d never have given one to you or to anybody.”
“If that’s so,” Will reasoned, “then where’s the harm in giving me one now?”
Dora sighed, pulled the bag from her belt. “Don’t put your hand in – no hand’s supposed to touch the ones I use for wards. Shake one out.” She tossed him the pouch. She felt the weight of it leave her fingertips, heard the flints click against each other. The bag fell into Will’s hand, and collapsed weightlessly there, flat.
They gaped. “What is this, sleight of hand?” Will said.
“When could I ever do sleight of hand?” Dora protested. They scanned the ground at their feet, but the arrowheads had not fallen out there. The bag was still securely tied shut, it had burst no seam. And yet there it lay Will’s palm, empty, the stones fled.
“They won’t stay with you,” Dora whispered; she felt as if the breath had been knocked out of her.
“Here, you’re not going to swoon, are you?” Will’s warm hand gripped her upper arm. “You’re looking right pale.”
“Never swooned in my life,” Dora muttered, biting back tears; she did hate to blubber.
“It’s only around you that it’s happening, isn’t it?” Will said wonderingly. “The mists are thicker than they’ve ever been, but no one’s so much as heard their voices in dreams, no one’s yet seen the riders…”
“I’ve seen the riders. Not ten feet from the path, closer than I’ve ever seen them come, not even on St. John’s Eve. Everyone around me is hunting the fae, grabbing at them like they were trying to catch minnows with their hands, wanting it so badly while I see the riders every night, I hear the horns and I don’t want them and I don’t know if everyone’s going mad or if I am, and I hate it…” She ground her teeth on a sob.
“You’ve seen the riders this year?” Will, slow on the uptake as always. “No one’s seen them.”
“Don’t I know it. Everyone’s complaining so.” All yearning for the chance to be left lamed, broken, witless – or just gone, gone for good. “Don’t tell anyone.”
“Haven’t till now, have I?” There was no jealousy or anger in his voice, thank God, only a vast thoughtfulness, and he still held Dora’s arm, and she felt a maudlin desire to lay her face on his shoulder and bawl like a child. “Sorry your elf-shot got lost.”
Dora snorted, surreptitiously wiped her nose on the pouch. “Oh, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got wards enough ready at home… trouble is, no one wants them lately. Five babies born this year and I’ve only sold two wards. It’s like people want the fae to take their children, long as they get something in return. It’s just wickedness.”
“I don’t know that that’s what they mean by it,” Will said absently. “Listen, you know Dan is good with a tale? I mean, not the stories he tells everyone. He tells different stories when the women have left the inn – at least, when the ladies have left. He tells them to the other men.”
She looked at him mistrustfully. “Old Dan. There’s a man with fae blood, if any man ever had.”
“When the girls go home at night, he sometimes talks about… women.”
“Not surprised, the old goat.”
“Something he said, I thought it might have to do with you.”
Dora looked sharply at him. “Is he saying I ever had something to do with him? I’d reckoned him a hound, but not a liar, not that kind of liar. If he’s been telling tales like that of me, I swear…”
“No, no, no, not about you. No one’s ever told tales like that about you.”
Dora felt both reassured and obscurely disheartened by this. “What then?”
“He told about this woman once, a long time ago…”
“No names,” Dora said severely.
“She was hard-favored and older than he was, and she truly didn’t like him, not just pretending or jealous. And so he set out to win her over, more than he’d worked for many a prettier one. Just because she was the one who’d said no.”
“And?” she answered stonily.
“Well, he won her over eventually…”
“Of course he would, in his telling. Spreading gossip of some poor woman…”
“He didn’t tell us her name. And I don’t think he was lying. He’s happy to tell a story that will make him look a right fool if there’s a good laugh in it. I’d guess he won her over in truth, but that’s not the point.”
“Then what is?”
“Don’t you see? Your grandmother, then you – both of you have said ‘no’ all along. ‘No”’ to the fae. Maybe that’s just what makes them want to turn your head – because you’re so stiff-necked. Just say ‘yes’ to them, in some little thing. Leave a cup of milk on your doorstep.”
“I don’t have any milk in the house,” she temporized.
“Then a scrap of bread. A bowl of broth. Just humble yourself a little. Give them that victory, and maybe they’ll stop caring.”
Oddly eager he sounded. Did he care that she felt tormented? Or was he just hoping to turn the attention of the fae back to everyone else, so that he could have his proper chance at it?
“I’ll think about it.”
She had thought about it before, and that night, at Will’s urging, she thought again.
It would be simple, she knew quite well how it was done, though she had never done it. Gather an offering, just a small portion, though of your best and most wholesome. A cup of milk warm from the goat or the cow. Or a slice of bread and dripping. She contemplated her small stores that night, and opened a jug. She had soaked and pounded dried apples and bought a measure of honey a week or so ago, to prepare a drink to bring to the St. John’s Eve celebration, and the result was now young mead cider. Most would wait till the sweet had gone all to strong spirit, but Dora liked it best as it was now, with only a hint of the sharpness of liquor which had not yet overwhelmed the sweetness of apples and honey, and the fermentation still bubbling to give it a delightful fizz. The jug was full, enough to fill the clay cup she had used as a child with plenty left over for tomorrow’s feast. Just put it out on the doorstep, no harm done. And then would they accept her capitulation and finally let her be, and invite someone more willing into their sport, to win their prizes and risk their penalties?
She stared at the brimming cup. She had the uneasy feeling that giving them the offering would be like admitting a debt to them that she’d left unpaid all her life. Would this token give them some power over her to claim all she’d owed and never given?
She clenched her fists. And besides… besides… why should she humble herself to them? What did she owe them but pain – her mother’s yearning, vacant eye, her mute tongue, in the months before she’d died? She picked up the cup and drained it, relishing the sweet and the sting.
Mother Tinker’s caravan wagon was never going anywhere again. Its gilt and bright paint were fading, and it leaned a little to one side where someone had stolen a wheel and propped the axle on bricks. Dora was pleasantly surprised to find the old woman sitting up on a stool in front of the wagon – she’d been taking to dozing a great deal during the day and Dora had been worried she was failing. She’d been wrestling with the idea of taking the old woman in to live with her – after all, she’d been her grandmother’s friend (as far as anyone could be said to have been her grandmother’s friend). But she shrank from the prospect, fretting that Mother Tinker could become bedridden and linger for years, a burden on Dora’s care. She felt somewhat ashamed of these qualms, and when she found Mother Tinker up, she was glad to postpone the decision for another day. “Morning, Mother.”
Mother Tinker blinked at her. “Oh, it’s you, child.”
Dora wondered whether the old woman really recognized her as she turned away and stared intently off toward the misty point, though surely her clouded eyes could hardly see it.
The wagon was tiny, with barely room enough for Mother Tinker’s cot, a stove the size of a pickling jar, and the table she told fortunes on. Judging from the smell, the old woman was still making it out to the midden, and a few flicks of the broom swept the small space. When Dora was little, she had heard Mother Tinker had had a family of eight. Dora had been thrilled to imagine them all sleeping in this tiny space, stacked on each other like cordwood. She’d been disappointed when Mother Tinker told her they’d actually slept in tents they set up at night; the wagon had been just for telling fortunes. She glanced approvingly at the saucer on the table where a few coppers rested; Mother was still taking in the tourists, though it was careless of her to leave money lying about like that.
“I refilled your water bucket and put some dried cod to soak,” Dora announced as she came out of the wagon. “It’s on the stove, just stir up the fire when you want it.”
“Thank you, dear,” answered Mother Tinker, not taking her eyes from the horizon.
“Mother,” Dora began hesitantly.
“Ah, don’t call me that, child. I’m no one’s mother any more. Call me Durril.”
“Durril,” Dora tried, the r’s rolling uncomfortable as pebbles on her tongue, “you shouldn’t look at the mist like that.”
The old woman looked at her, so that Dora could see the black-brown of her eyes around the bluish cataracts. “Why not?”
“You told me I shouldn’t yourself, a hundred times. You and my grandmother both.”
“So I did,” Durril nodded. “When you’re a mother with children, you warn them, like you would warn your children paddling on the shore to ’ware the undertow. For you don’t want ’em to drown when they’re drawn by the heat of the day and the sparkle on the waves to swim out further than their strength.”
“But people learn to swim,” Dora answered cautiously. “Does that mean the – the undertow’s not that dangerous once you’re grown, and strong enough to breast it? That you made it sound worse than it was to warn the children so they wouldn’t play too deep ‘til they were grown and strong enough to know the current, and it isn’t really that dangerous?”
Mother Tinker looked sharply at her. “Oh, never think that, child. I taught my wards to your grandmother for good reason, as she taught them to you. Just as the current can sometimes take even the strongest, most daring swimmer, the fair folk never stop being dangerous. At your peril do you forget.” She looked back at the point and sighed. “But back when I was young, I saw the mists rise and the air be golden; I heard their music and felt that yearning in my heart and limbs and entrails. And it was right and fitting for me at that time, when I was young and the mother of no one to feel that call, and remember it, even if I did heed wisdom and turn away. And now that I’m old and again the mother of no one, it seems to me a mercy and a blessing to hear the music and see the mists again.”
Further protests rose to Dora’s lips, but the look on Mother Tinker’s face – mild, weary, enduring – suddenly reminded her of when Mother Tinker had first come to town. Even in the dazed aftermath of the aching plague, she had been a nine-days wonder, with her copper jewelry, her colorful clothing hanging on her, the way she had to be half-carried to the church because of her lameness. She had worn that look as Father Theo had questioned her sternly for hours. He had finally pronounced her a sort of Christian, and sprayed and fumigated her with holy water and incense to make sure, and even eventually granted her a pauper’s stipend to supplement her meager earnings in fortune-telling (which she had sworn to him was just foolery she would only use on summer people).
The town had quite congratulated itself on its generosity. But Dora suddenly remembered with a jolt things she had learned much later: that while Father Theo had questioned Durril, other townsfolk had been burying her family in the field where the plague had struck them down, shrouded in scraps of their brightly colored tents. And Dora bit down on further protests and went on her way.
Even Mother Tinker, she thought. But at least she had her reasons. The rest of the town – what was so bad about what they had that they had to yearn for more? The lord too. There wasn’t a merchant so prosperous that he didn’t hope…
Dora looked up with a jolt. It was prosaic midday, but this far along in summer the fae might appear anywhere. This woman could have simply wandered out of one of the low-lying paths from a ditch or a dell, but it felt as if she had dropped from the sky or sprouted from the earth. Her appearance only enhanced that impression – ragged, clothing of many colors, like Mother Tinker’s. But this old woman’s skin was white as milk, as was her scant hair, and she wore a faded red bandanna tied aslant on her head to cover one of her (presumably missing) eyes. A fae?
“I was headed for the village and lost my way. Help me find it – I grow so weary…”
Dora’s eyes narrowed. The path the woman was standing by did wander on the low side of the causeway and the beach, out of sight of the village, so the woman’s story was at least plausible, but her unearthly appearance militated against belief. “Go to the church,” Dora answered coldly, pointing at the right path.
The old woman drew herself up at Dora’s tone. “Scant aid indeed. Is it not your duty as a Christian to feed the hungry, and grant the stranger welcome and succor?”
Dora pressed her lips together, turned away and strode off. A fae, almost certainly. When their simpler blandishments failed, they tried to tempt you into dangerous acts of philosophy. Still, it stung. She did have a farthing or two she could spare; briefly she considered tossing the coin at the woman’s feet where it might bounce off the ground and ping her ankle. Surely such a rude display of charity would prompt no dangerous gift to leave Dora beholden. But she felt too angry at the scolding to turn back.
Saving for a proper stall, she reminded herself. With a brine-barrel.
A fae, surely. But if she isn’t, then I’m a tightfisted ungenerous girl who refused charity to a homeless beggar. Because of misplaced wrath, or cowardice, or avarice – take your pick, none of it’s flattering.
Lying, treacherous creatures using us for toys, she thought resentfully. Who are they to sit in judgement on what we do?
After St. John’s Eve mass, she wove her crown of sweetbriar and primrose – plants with significant charms against the fae. She pared off the thorns before braiding them together, while murmuring her grandmother’s words under her breath – wards Gran had inherited and woven with others of Mother Tinker’s, according to some logic of her own that she’d never managed to teach Dora. Still, Dora remembered the words perfectly, and Gran had said that was enough.
She had left her crown for last, after she’d bathed herself and combed and braided her hair and pinned it in a coronet at the top of her head. Only then did she cut the flowers and make the crown, just as the sun was setting. She wanted the pink and yellow flowers to stay fresh and bright as far into the night as possible.
She put it on, wishing she had a proper mirror, smoothed her linen gown fretfully. She’d washed and mended it the day before, her mother’s good dress, probably the one she’d worn to her wedding. Undyed linen, a bit worn, but Dora had mended it carefully and linen was too dear to think of buying new. Dora had had to take up the hem – her mother had been taller than her, took more after her grandmother that way, no doubt. She drew up the jug of cider from the well and set out for the common.
St. John’s Eve used to be a day for honoring the fae. Given that, it was odd how her grandmother had always strictly enjoined her to learn the St. John’s Eve dances with the other children, so that she might join in when old enough. Not out of any expectation that Dora would enjoy them or be good at them (nor did she, nor was she – dancing, like small talk, never came easily to her), more from her strict sense of propriety. Father Theo’s predecessors had come to Reneyra and made it Christian, rewrote the solstice songs to hymns, thus made the observance of the holiday right and proper, and that was that.
The common looked soothingly ordinary in the westering sun. Dora had spent the morning there, helping sweep the dance area clean of sheepshit, adding her share of fish to the communal broth, doing her share of gawking at the fancy tent pavilion the lord had set up on the other side of the common for his ball. Everyone was on edge, more than the usual anticipation of the St. John’s Eve feast. Nothing had happened despite the promise of the mist, thicker than any could ever remember it having been. People had tried everything to catch the eye of the fae. Summer visitors had bought talismans from Wimbish, had slept in fairy rings of mushrooms in the moonlight, but found that the magical mists that swathed the woods seemed just an ordinary fog among scraggly osiers and hornbeam. Still, they persisted – the Dane named Finn had walked hopefully through the misty woods and went right off a cliff edge, fortunately falling into a deep tidepool where Will (digging on the edge) had plucked him out with no injury save to his dignity and his handsome broadcloth suit. Nothing had happened – no one even saw the riders at a distance or heard their horns, as usually happened around this time of year. And because nothing had happened, everyone expected that tonight, something must.
Dora felt an uneasy excitement as well. She had seen everything the others had been spared. Only Will knew she saw the riders every night. He had walked her part of the way home several times, but while he was there with her the riders had not appeared. She’d heard their trumpets sounding faintly from the woods, but she could tell from Will’s unchanged eager expression as he stared in quite the wrong direction that he had heard nothing. Each evening he had turned off down the path that led to his beachside hut, his shoulders drooping.
She had heard the nightingales outside her window at night, their song lovely as always, but the notes far more complex and articulate, tantalizingly like human speech. She felt sure that if she went outside in the moonlight and listened closely, long enough, she could make out actual words, a message of supreme import… and she had slammed closed her shutters and went resentfully to bed in the airless summer heat. She had seen a fox limping along the path at dusk, glancing at her as it lifted its paw imploringly. And the other day the market tabby had ignored the savory entrails that Dora had tossed her to sit up on her haunches, locking gazes with Dora as her mouth opened –
“Speak,” Dora hissed in an undertone, so that Will wouldn’t hear, “and never another scrap from me – naught but kicks and flints from this day on. Mind, now.”
The cat closed its mouth and wisely turned back to the offal at its feet.
I’m looking forward to the dance because this night is the last night, she told herself. After St. John’s Eve, everything will go back to the way it should be, ‘til next spring. Though of course it was also true that she was looking forward – however tensely – to her first dance. Sixteen was the first year you could join in. She slipped off her shoes and walked gingerly on the cropped grass of the common to where Bea, Elly and Mattie were huddling with the other unmarried folk who would dance the circle dance.
Bea had sprained her ankle, and Elly would sit out the dance with her – it didn’t much surprise Dora, those two would do nothing apart. There were a few confirmed bachelors who always refused the dance, but Finn the Dane would join the men, so even with Bridget (who still scandalized the gossiping goodwives afresh with her audacity in joining the dance this year, even though she’d already done it three years running) there were an even number on both sides for the dance. Bea apprised her in an undertone of the fact that Mattie and the Dane seemed to have an understanding. The Dane had been hired as the lord’s surveyor, for much honor and little money. “Mattie’s been walking out with him after church and taught him the circle dance, so they’re practically engaged.”
Mattie had indeed arrived on Finn the Dane’s arm. Her gown was new linen, and she wore a crown of red garden roses, no doubt bought from the butcher’s wife. Dora glanced sidewise at Will, to see how he was taking it. If the sight bothered him, he didn’t show it; after one thoughtful look at the couple he turned back to the misty point, which looked like distant rolling mountains, tinted copper and violet in the setting sun, before his gaze swept the crowd, lighting on this stranger’s face and that one.
Dora turned her back to the mists. “Who won the bet on which of the summer people would stay?” she asked Bea, to be asking something.
Bea shrugged. “Don’t know. Wasn’t paying that much attention this year.” Her eyes also kept drifting to the mist, then to unfamiliar visitors in the crowd.
That was the way of it. The games people usually played had been neglected this year – hardly any quoits or bowls or cockfights. Not once this year had the lord and his guests galloped their horses through a farmer’s fields and barnyard in pursuit of some poor little fox. But the look in people’s eyes had the same passionate anticipation as any card player watching the hands turned up. This year they were playing for higher stakes.
Shivering even in the summer warmth, she uncorked her jug and turned to pick up a few wooden cups from the heap that Dan had brought from the inn. “Anyone? It’s better when it’s still cool.”
Mattie, the Dane, Will and Evie took cups. Carl the tanner came strolling up and held out one as well, it being the Eve’s custom to share what you brought. He puckered his lips when he tasted the sweet of the cider mead. “This is a drink for a child.”
“I like it.” Mattie declared. Will held out his cup for another drink. Dora refilled all round and turned to look at the common, to avoid Carl’s gaze. The crowd was larger than she remembered at any other St. John’s Eve before. Strangers – so many more than she’d been able to keep track of these past few weeks – mingling with familiar faces, all with that same eager gaze. Dora’s unease grew at the thought that she would have to dance in front of them all, and she hastily drained her cup before setting it down.
“Time,” bawled Goodwife Alis, herding them into the open space before the bonfire. The women formed one circle with their arms about each other’s shoulders, the men another. Dora stood trembling, Mattie’s cool hand resting on one side of her neck, Bridget’s on the other. The crowd’s eyes glittered at them, friends and strangers – even the rich guests of the lord had wandered from their fancy tent to watch. The dance was old; who knew what fae powers they hoped it would call up?
Dan handed his cup to his wife and strode to the knot of musicians. “The sun is setting. You all know how it goes.” He nodded to Rob, who swung his padded mallet at his keg drum – the deep thumping heartbeat of the tune, with the lighter patter and scurry of Walt’s hand drum. Poll’s hands fluttered on his harpstrings, drawing stingingly beautiful high notes, with the strum of Bruno’s lute. Ralf the flute and Tom the reed-pipe skirled high in the familiar old melody. Dan threw back his head and began to sing “The Waters of St. John” in a strong baritone. All Reneyrans joined in.
The pipes, harp and drums had been joined over the years by the big-bellied lute Suley’s grandfather had sold to Pietro’s dad, and the original words of the song had been replaced with the hobnailed verses of the hymn, but the tune was still the same, and the nonsense-word refrain sung between the stanzas. Old Wimbish said this was the old, forgotten tongue people on the headland used to speak when the fae lived among them. In his efforts to wring meaning and magic from them, he had excitedly crowed of traces of Sanskrit and Babylonian he found in their liquid syllables, before sinking into discouragement at their essential indecipherability.
Dora sang the words, and at the proper note she stamped her right foot in unison with the other dancers, and swung into the weaving side-step of the beginning of the dance – at least this part was easy. The circles spun rightwise, then widdershins, then broke, becoming two lines of men and women facing each other. Each dancer moved away from each other as they swayed and stamped, their hands sliding from each other’s shoulders down their arms till they clasped hands, then let go. The lines of men and women danced toward each other and merged, a man between every woman in one long line that became another circle.
Now the hard part, thought Dora as the circle stopped revolving, but she flung herself into the dance, the instinctive wisdom of her body overcoming hobbling thought. Each woman turned to the man on her right (in Dora’s case Pietro, who grinned at her) and flung out her hand in challenge. Her partner turned to face her and danced, cutting capers with leaps and kicks, in prescribed steps that she echoed in mirror image, though her leaps were more sedate, her kicks lower, toes pointed demurely as she swirled her wide skirts about. They clasped upraised hands before their faces and circled each other briefly before exchanging a bow and turning to the next partner. Carl, who capered indifferently, whose hand was rough in hers, whose walrus mustache was a great mop of hair and dander. Suley. Harry… Dora had acquitted herself so far, but a slip or fall in the dance meant all sorts of omens about who (or even whether) you would marry, and her breath was thinning so she could barely pant the song that roared about her. Gil. Hugh. Allan. Miles. Wat. Hodge. Owen.
Will. His eyes gleamed with exhilaration as he smiled at her. His capers were shockingly strong and graceful, better than he’d ever been in practice, and she felt she nearly matched them. They moved together and revolved around the axis of their clasped hands, his fingers hot and strong, wrist and forearm warm against hers. And then he let go, they exchanged bows, and she turned away to her next few partners, barely whispering the song. The billowing waters of St. John…
She passed Pietro again. The end of the hymn led to the beginning, and after the circle had gone round once, the musicians left off playing when they would, and it was said that whoever you ended up with was the one you would marry. And now Carl, his capers perceptibly slowed, his scaly hand, his tanner’s scent – had he not washed for the feast day? Don’t let the music stop.
Suley, thank God. The music ground to a halt, and general laughter rose as everyone took careful note of who had wound up with whom. She and Suley exchanged embarrassed smiles, knowing they would both be in for some ribbing over the next few months, even though the dance omen often didn’t come true. It didn’t matter. She was not prosperous enough for the likes of the coppersmith’s family, and she and Suley had never spoken twenty words to each other, though they’d known each other all their lives. No one would really believe that they would get married. Most importantly, Dora herself would not believe it, but ending the dance in Carl’s arms would have made the prospect seem far too real, and foredoomed.
The musicians struck up an istampete, and many eager dancers rushed up from the crowd, but Dora’s prowess didn’t go so far. She would wait ‘til later in the evening, when the dances would get simpler as people got drunker. She served out the rest of her mead, spelled Alis in serving out broth before taking a serving herself. While she ate and drank more cider, she kept a sharp eye on the paupers from out of town who were getting handouts of bread, but she didn’t see the one-eyed stranger who’d reproved her. Still, she might be among the crowd somewhere – it was so thick, there was no way of telling. There were so many dancers, so many people watching the dancers. Even the lord’s guests were coming out of their ball to look on. In their beautiful silk and brocade they might be mistaken for fae by the ignorant – but even they darted eager glances from face to face, hoping someone would show a tinge of the uncanny. Is it you, or you, or you?
She drank a cup of ale, and a cup of wine, and turned her back on the crowd to stare into the bonfire, and frowned. Father Theo was sitting hunched on a log watching the fire, nursing a cup in his hands that probably held something stronger than sacramental wine.
“You ought to have stopped it all, Father, you know you ought,” she found herself reproaching him, as she never would have dared, sober. “There’s cow hock and shank bones in the fire for fae offerings, just like in the olden times. You should have stopped everyone with fire and brimstone sermons and a strong hand when they hung the first hawthorn branch.”
He glared at her, and she felt dismayed to realize he didn’t frighten her as he always could before; he looked so frail and old. “I tried, didn’t I? You heard me at the pulpit this morning.” He pressed his lips together at the quaver in his voice, went on in a mutter. “There’s a story of how the fae came about. They say that when the angels rebelled, God judged them all, and the best he kept with him, and the worst he cast into hell. But those who were too wicked for heaven but too good for hell, he left to wander on earth, and those were the fae.”
He sipped from his cup, stared into the fire. “And so they surely serve His ends somehow, too, though I mayen’t know how. God judged them as not properly of heaven or hell, so what’s a man of God to do?”
She turned away and walked off into the crowd. He might take it as acceptance of his words, or disdain of them. She didn’t much care which, right then.
People passed around more jugs. She drank sweet malt and fizzy young cider, and strong still cider that people poured from a pitcher held over their heads into a cup held below their waists, to make it foam. She danced the slow, easy canter with Pietro, and with Hugh, who trod upon her toes, and with Owen, treading on his. She danced with Carl because it wasn’t meet to refuse anyone on St. John’s Eve, and though no one got stepped on, she felt unreasonably annoyed that he had not brushed his mustache free of dinner’s breadcrumbs. The Dane showed off with Mattie a dance called the weller; he was surprisingly graceful, and Dora cheered with the others. She maintained her smile when Will took a turn with Mattie, and was heartened when he turned to her next, unprompted, and she danced with a verve she hadn’t known she possessed.
She drank ale, and sips of whisky, and goggled when a viscount from the lord’s party asked Mattie to dance. The rich had come out upon the open green and were mingling so with the commoners that people were joking that it might be a night like it had been two hundred years ago, when due to a fae spell the rich of the town had rushed into the arms of the poor and they all had lain together on the green, threshing the grass flat with their coupling, and the dawn woke the lord in the embrace of a goosegirl, and it was said that the current lord had inherited his snub nose from the village donkey drover that frenzied night.
Dora drank more ale, and sips of some burning liquor clear as water from the Dane’s chased silver flask, and let Dan persuade her with a piratical smile to dance the quick millrace. Whether due to the liquor or Dan’s skill, it was easy, breathtakingly easy to whirl round and round with him, though he held her a bit too tightly as they danced, and kissed her cheek soundly before he cheerfully turned to another partner, just as if his wife wasn’t watching placidly from the sidelines where she sat, hugely pregnant at six-and-forty with Dan’s fourth and fifth child (if one believed the midwife), the old goat.
Savoring a lascivious annoyance, she wandered away from the dancers, interested to note that this stage of drunkenness felt like one was drifting cloudlike over the ground without the need of one’s feet, quite pleasantly.
I’ve touched more men tonight than I have my whole life long, she thought, and giggled. Dan, having wearied of dances, began to sing again – a song warning girls away from wicked things that only wicked girls did. Wicked girls who spurned their village lovers, and brazenly opened the shutters to let the moonlight shine right on their beds, because that would invoke a handsome daemon lover who would know exactly what he did there, as no mortal man could. The words were a cautionary tale, but Dan sang them with a knowing smile that seemed to promise that he could sing a great deal of those fae caresses had decency not forbade… and his vibrant voice made her feel that he already had.
She laughed again shakily. Maybe it was a spell, or the drink, or maybe it was just youth in her blood that made everything seem so fair. On the face of it nothing magical was happening, yet all senses were heightened, the feel of the grass under her bare feet, the warm sweet smell of skin and sweat and spirit, the graceful dancers in the firelight, the crescent moon moved her so that her eyes stung with tears. She shivered. How to distinguish what was dangerous when you saw beauty everywhere, felt it under your skin, longed to batter yourself against it? Spring was treacherous.
Carl drifted by, smirking at her crookedly. She ducked away in the crowd before he could ask her to dance again. It was surely unfair to hold his scaly dyed hands against him, but she could hold against him that walrus mustache, the crumbs and scurf caught in it, and that smirk – such certainty in it, so sure of her. And was he right? Would she settle for him someday, to soothe the ache, the loneliness? She turned away with a shiver of disgust, and even the disgust felt sensuous.
She knew that she ought to go home now, like a sensible girl, and discover tomorrow what it felt like to wake up crapulous and puking from too much drink. Tomorrow things would be as always, the workday rounds and no magic, and hadn’t she longed for that?
Suddenly Will was standing next to her, had put her arm around her, had taken her hand, burning against her palm. “Take me with you down the path,” he whispered. “Surely we’ll see the riders tonight.”
She looked up in his eyes, and he smiled at her. She impulsively squeezed his palm, darted forward and kissed the angle of his jaw. He didn’t shy away; he laughed and kissed her cheek and pulled her close when she swayed. A giddy confidence filled her. They would go and the fae would avoid them, because of Will being with her. And once at her hut, she would draw him in. She could do it now, with the cider and wine and longing nerving her to it. And then – who needed fae for that magic?
“Just stay on the path”, she whispered. He squeezed her shoulder, and they wobbled off together. The music and the firelight faded behind them as they walked off into the dark.
What if he says no to me at the door? Or if he says yes, and regrets it later? If I do, too? she thought as they stumbled along. What if, what if, she remonstrated herself. Can’t a woman choose to do a daring thing, too?
She leaned against him, taking heart in the steadying warmth of his side against her, his arm draped across their shoulders, as they swayed along the path. As her eyes adjusted to the dim moonlight she could make out the rolling hills, the first small trees, Will’s silhouetted profile as he looked raptly ahead. She could hear no fae horns or flutes, nothing but crickets and the brief chirr of a nightjar. There was no scent of hawthorn on the breeze, just the hay scent of the heath. Everything was perfect. She put her arm around his waist to comfort him for the anticipated disappointment.
The trees thickened here, branches of osier and alder silvered in moonlight. The path here turned to skirt the wood, giving it a wide berth. Dora felt Will’s head turn to look into the depths of the wood – and felt him stiffen. She turned to look, and froze.
The mist had taken on a gleam of its own, like a cloud with the full moon shining behind it. Its whiteness shone in the depths of the wood, the nearer trees outlined in black against it before they faded to ghostly grey – because the mist was engulfing them.
“I’m coming!” Will called out. His face shone with eagerness, as if reflecting the light of the mist, and then he was gone, tearing from her to bound across the field toward the woods.
For a long, craven moment she stood frozen on the path. Let him go, he did it to himself.
She sprang forward onto the turf after him with a moan, and he was half a field away, bound for the wood, the mists already blurring his outline. “Will!” He did not pause or look back as he dashed into the trees.
She’d been a fool, a vain, self-important fool. They’d not been after her at all, they’d wanted Will all along, and she’d delivered him up into their hands.
Grimly she ran onward. There were paths even through the woods, and she knew them all, though only by daylight. If she could get to him, pull him back to one, she could get him home, even here, even now. She ran forward into the mist-shrouded woods, clutched at her flower crown as it almost bounced from her head, and whimpered as she realized that the fresh green leaves were swiftly drying and withering beneath her fingers. She could hear it happening, a soft crackle in her ear like a threatening whisper, its protective charms disintegrating under the onslaught of inimical magic. She caught her breath in a sob. “Will!” He ran ahead, and she panted on, the loam of the woods springy beneath her feet, and somehow she didn’t lose him, nor could she gain any ground as she followed him. Sometimes he was a shadow moving ahead and sometimes he would leap a fallen branch with a bound and she saw him brightly silhouetted against the mist. A branch clouted her ear as she ran. The mist grew thicker, and now she could not see Will, only hear the distant crashing of his feet in the underbrush, as she ran on, and on.
Suddenly she plunged into darkness, and skidded to a stop. The mist was gone; she had been left momentarily blinded by the loss of its milky glow. She stood still, panting, realized that she could no longer hear Will’s footsteps. Gradually she began seeing trees around her, but they weren’t the same trees.
She had never seen these trees, or any trees like them. Even the tallest oaks of the wood were twisted dwarfs in comparison…so tall, so straight, thicker than the pillars of the great church on the mainland. She stood in a cathedral of trees, surrounding a clearing only dimly lit by the great stars in the midnight blue patch of sky. The moon had been overhead when Will had left the path, but it wasn’t, here.
And as her eyes adapted to the dimness her heart gave a painful leap as she saw Will. He had stopped running. He stood at the far edge of the clearing, facing away, his head thrown back in an attitude of wondering awe. He stood still as she walked forward, too still. She went to him, even the small sounds of her bare feet on the mossy ground scaring her in the silence of that wood.
How can I see him so clearly? For she could see him, far better than she ought to be able to see someone in that dim light. She could see his bare feet far more clearly than the moss they rested in, the tanned brown skin of his calves, his worn breeches and Sunday shirt. His shaggy hair shone, showed its color as it shouldn’t in that dim light. It was as if he gave out light of his own, as if he were a cunning man-shaped lamp of glass, colored like flesh, but with a candle flame within giving his brown hair and eyes and sun-browned skin a faint golden glow. She had put out a hand to touch his shoulder but froze as his head slowly turned to look at her. His eyes met hers – brown eyes gleaming, beaming gold, as he smiled at her. Will’s smile.
Oh. Oh, damn, was her first coherent thought. And I didn’t give that beggar a penny.
Her breath caught. His eyes lit up. “Good. You understand. I was hoping you would.”
She knew. Her mind scrabbled away from it – surely a bewitchment, a glamour – but she knew.
“Changeling?” she whispered.
He smiled, shook his head. “Oh, no. I was no child when I came to town, though I looked like one then.”
“One poor orphan boy is very like another to a plague-stricken village absorbed in its own troubles. With so many lying dead in the houses and fields, it was the simplest thing in the world to push one little corpse under the turf and take its place. One little bereaved brown-haired boy was not quite the same boy who had left a year before…no one noticed. Not even your hawk-eyed grandmother. Certainly not you.”
“But to keep us fooled for so long afterwards… never a slip…”
“It’s true we get bored easily, but it was simple to wander off now and then when I couldn’t bear it anymore, cast a seeming of myself toiling away on some distant beach, or just go off home at night. There was many a midnight my hut was empty. Who was interested enough in a poor oysterman to check and wonder? Not a respectable maid like yourself, always walking the straight and narrow.”
She might run. He seemed to see the thought cross her mind, and he leaned forward with a look of playful anticipation, as if they were children again and would race. But he’d always beat her racing, and there was no path she could see between the trees of these unknown woods, no way back to safe ground. She was within his borders, well and truly caught. And now would come the tests of the tales, her virtues and her faults to stand against them, and she greatly feared that her grudging charities to an alley cat and an old woman would not be enough to tip the scales in her favor.
“I thought you were my friend.”
“Oh, but I was.” He smiled. “I gave you the very best advice I could, truly.” He offered his arm to her.
Is it love, perhaps it could be? she thought with a cringing hopefulness that she felt ashamed of the moment she identified it. She looked in his eyes – his beautiful golden eyes, into that gloating appetite, a keen anticipation for her struggle ahead. Passion was there, surely, the passion of a gambler tensely awaiting the dice’s throw in the game.
Love? She was not such a fool.
At least, she thought bitterly, not quite that much of a fool.
And because she was proud, and because there was nothing for it, she raised her head with outward calm, and took his proffered arm with an air of disdain, and walked off with him into the forest.
Jane Sand was invented by a health care worker in New York. She lives in a crumbling house, possessed by a cat. Her hobbies include writing, painting, and decapitating Orange Lantern dolls to give them more suitable heads. She has had one story published in Golden Visions online magazine.