The Forgotten Past
Clare, Ireland, Springtime, Daytime, 106AD
The sky was a rare clear blue, but the wind was bitter cold and Aisling’s fingers were white with numbness. Yards away the quiet crannóg, an artificial island, promised a long day of fishing ahead. The warriors in charge of the place were out on a hunt with the king in the larger forests off their land and they’d want plenty of food prepared for them on their return. It wasn’t a large settlement here, the farmers said, but every soul was needed to contribute to the work if they were to prosper.
Where the crannóg’s bridge joined the island to the lake’s shore fields of barley cut into the forest. Most working there now were farmers, as there were only a handful of slaves in this area. Aisling was one of the slaves, and had been for the entire fifteen years of her life. Where she came from before that she did not know. She did enjoy some things about this place, mind; their resident poets were entertaining, visiting poets were wise of the world and seemed to her exotic, sometimes there were warriors of the Fianna that came and demonstrated their great strength, and always there were stories. Stories were more important than anything, and with an epic story sealed in the minds of the tellers and passed from mouth to mouth about oneself, immortality was assured. Sometimes Aisling thought she’d like her own story, but had no idea how to go about finding one for herself.
Busy with her work, she dragged the net into the boat and hauled herself to the crannóg. From there she dragged the heavy net over the bridge to set it by the house, where she began to drop the fish one by one into a barrel behind her – until she realised with a violent start that she heard not one of them flopping to the bottom of the pile.
With a frown she spun to peer at the seemingly bottomless barrel, and only then did she notice a shocking movement in the corner of her eye. Flicking its dark cloak with a toss of its head, a small figure made off with a whole sack of the fish – all of the fish, she realised upon dangling her head into the barrel – and it was leaping across the bridge before she could grab it by a limb and yell for help.
The cloaked person must have been hiding behind her without a sound ever since she got out of the boat! Impossible! The nerve!
The living shadow stole away into the forest as she looked desperately over the spiked pickets. Did she dare follow? If the theft was noticed any number of tragedies could befall her, but if caught leaving the crannóg the same could come of it. She took a step onto the bridge, looking once over her shoulder, then forwards to the farms. No one was watching. The worst that could happen outside was an attack from the stranger, and that would be a story. One brave step, and then another. And then...
She threw herself across the bridge without stopping to think an instant longer, her dark hair sweeping from her eyes as she ran by the turned backs working the fields. Would the cloaked stranger still be running? If that was the case she had no hope of keeping up, though if her legs could move as fast as her heart was beating she’d have no problem.
Not a moment too soon she was into the forest, where no one could see her. Best to be quick – they’d search here, once they noticed her absence.
But where to start? There wasn’t a track on the ground that she could see, not the tread of a footstep to be heard. She walked along the sunlight’s path through the woods, stepping through bushes and trees as she looked for some sign of the thief. She sometimes came this way to collect berries and nuts, but little of the forest was known to her, and suddenly it felt giant, its trees scraping the sky. The thief could be anywhere. Daunted by this frightful thought, she slowed her pace and thought of returning to her boat.
Unbeknownst to her, the thief had long since stepped from the cover of a tree he passed and had followed her for a time, mirroring her footsteps experimentally as the lithe figure watched the slave girl with some interest. The thief slunk to the side as she looked over her shoulder and skipped to the other side as she looked over the other. At last, she leapt in front of her, thrusting a dagger to her throat. Aisling yelped and stumbled backwards.
“Following me only to be followed by me, human? What’s leading you, then? The forest? Ha!”
Shrinking from the cold metal of the dagger, Aisling stared down at the wild girl as she took a rabid bite out of the raw fish she held. “Y-you’re a fairy!” she exclaimed. Those eyes said it all.
The girl with the knife pursed her lips as she dropped the sack of stolen fish onto the ground. Her mad brown eyes were wells of indifference, but Aisling only caught sight of them for a second before she lowered her hood with a bob of her fair head. All she could see after that was the curve of her chin and thin pink lips. The girl’s voice was low and grating.
“Is that why you were following me? That’d be foolish of you. I have magic enough in my palm to crush you like a twig!”
“No – I was looking for the fish but – you can keep them – but what they say is true. You’re a fairy, from Tír na nÓg and all them magical places – you really do exist!”
“I should hope so.” The girl huffed, eyeing the nibbled fish she held as though she’d prefer to start up conversation with it than her. “Before you ask, I cannot grant you eternal life or any other such nonsensical wishes.”
“I wouldn’t dare ask for such a thing, Milady,” Aisling amended hastily, especially since fairy wishes were guaranteed to turn into nightmares once granted. In the stories the people told fairies had been driven from the surface land hundreds of years ago, though it was rumoured rare meetings with one were chanced upon sometimes. This meeting had to be a one-in-a-million chance, and with a start she realised that this – this – was a story to last her a lifetime.
“I am not your lady. I would pity any lady of yours,” she said tonelessly, though she withdrew her dagger from Aisling’s throat and kept it at her side. That done, she lost interest and began to walk away, taking another bite from the fish in her hand as she went.
“Wait!” Aisling pleaded, perhaps a little too desperately, since she could hardly turn back now and explain the theft as fault of a fairy without proof. She grabbed the displeased fairy’s wrist. “Tell me your name, at least!”
The girl snapped her wrist easily from her loose grip, and for a moment she was sure she would hex her. Instead, she hissed, “I am Queen Maeve, the warrior queen! Don’t try anything like that again.”
“The Queen Maeve?” repeated Aisling, unsure. This ‘queen’ wore an emerald green dress underneath her reddish-brown cloak, and two strands of her hair were weighted by two golden (gold, she marvelled) hair clasps. However, her green dress was tattered and her golden hair clasps were muddied and marked in places, marred by age.
“The Queen Maeve who led the greatest cattle raid in the land to prove herself the equal of her husband? The Maeve of many lovers who defeated all her sisters in combat and killed one in cold-blood? The wise queen of Connacht and the scourge of Ulster? You’re her?!”
“I was a queen,” Maeve corrected herself slowly, flattered enough by now to feel awkward to admit it. “Before your time, I was that queen – the most feared and powerful of queens. I would still be her today, if I had not become as I am. My people denounced me once I became a fairy. I’ve been expatriated. I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” she said with an unimpressed wriggle of her nose.
“But you can’t be much older than me! You can’t be that Maeve,” she said, though again she had her doubts. Fairies were said to take many forms.
“Wrong; I have been a fairy for roughly thirty years and I am forty-to-fifty years old on the inside. I stand to grow much older if nature runs its course, but I can tell you don’t understand, so I’ll stop telling you about it.”
“Oh, but it’s really interesting though.” Her mind was reeling, spewing forth ideas of fairies and magic – magic! She hadn’t asked her about that!
There was not a word she could get in edgeways as Queen Maeve busily eyed the human slave, her gaze a spear. An ill wind swept through the forest, tearing at her cloak.
“What’s your name, mortal? It had better be a good one.”
Maeve was silent for a moment, not once taking her eyes from Aisling’s face. Then she recited as she snaked in fiendish circles round the human:
“Oh, Ash-ling Óg, what do you see
Through those strange blue eyes?
Is it a Light that shines within
Or is it Darkness in disguise?”
She finished in a whisper before her with an expectant arch of her eyebrows.
“What does that mean?” asked Aisling, wondering if she’d cast some sort of hex on her. The fairies didn’t appreciate meddling unless they were the ones doing it.
Instead Queen Maeve only shook her head despairingly, her golden hair clasps swinging from side to side. “It means nothing. I was hit by inspiration all of a sudden. Why do small nothings always mean something with you people, and on top of that to dismiss big somethings as nothing so easily?”
Aisling shrunk under that invasive, bug-eyed stare. “I –”
“No, no, I shan’t have stupidity infecting my ears. But tell me: who are you?”
“Just a slave.”
“How boring. I would have no time for such a horrid way of living. You should be like me and do as you please.”
“I’d say I’m too hungry to do much of that,” said Aisling, declining her offer of the fish she held out to her. She frowned. On closer inspection it wasn’t entirely raw and smelt half-cooked. How was that? She herself had only just caught it. Fairy business, she supposed.
As she daydreamed Maeve picked a bit of fish from between her teeth, saying distractedly as she did, “Maybe there is some use to be had of you yet, Aisling Óg.”
“Not to be rude, Milady, but what could a fairy want of me?”
“Ní neart go cur le chéile. I need you and you need me. I’m bored, you are bored, and regrettably that’s where the similarities run their course, though common ground is common ground. I’m still a step ahead in status, even as I am. After all, you can hardly stop being a full queen once you have been, can you?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“That can’t be helped.” She picked her sack from the ground and threw it over her shoulder. “We’d best be off – it’s dreadfully dull here. I wonder whose absence they’ll notice first: yours or the fish?”
Aisling frowned. “What?”
“Haven’t you been listening? I need a companion.”
“You didn’t mention that at all!”
“I thought I said enough, and if you don’t think so then you asked the wrong questions and have only yourself to blame. I’ve been abroad for many years, and have only recently returned. I can’t return to my own kind yet, so I must start a new journey, and for such a quest I will need an advisor.”
Aisling looked at her, waiting for some reason she was telling her all this. Maeve heaved a great, hopeless sigh.
“You are an oblivious mortal, typically. I am asking you, Aisling, to come with me and escape this dull facade of a life. Make your choice with the truth in your heart, if you can find it. And make it fast.”
Before Aisling could question her further, she turned on her heel and walked further into the forest. She was right, though – as soon as they noticed something amiss the few warriors left at the crannóg would send word to the ring rath only just out of sight on the hill in the west. Soon they’d have a manhunt started.
Before she knew it her feet were moving of their own accord while her mind remained conflicted, yet even if this fairy warrior queen was to turn on her, meeting her was the most notable event ever to happen in her life.
She was beginning to catch up, and Maeve gave no indication as to whether she was pleased or not as she ducked low under a branch. Despite all this talk of advisors, Aisling had a feeling she only wanted a mortal on her heels to have someone to show-off to. Not so oblivious now, was she?
Queen Maeve glanced to her side, frowning as she realised she was behind her. “Don’t walk behind me. You’re a person, not a dog.”
You are a lonely creature, she thought to herself as she took the plunge and walked at Maeve’s side. Yes, she had been alone, but Aisling was sure she could help her with that. It was all she could do – Maeve had solved all of her problems, and had given her a story to tell.
I’m sure fairies aren’t as evil as everyone says they are.
Her worries disintegrated as Maeve hummed to herself in a warble:
“Oh Aisling Óg, just wait and see,
We’ll take life by surprise,
‘What an odd pair’, all will say;
Us, turning Darkness into Light.”
Six Years Later, Seelie Court Territory, Scotland, Sunset
Far away from any settlement and avoided by most roaming tribes who’d heard stories of the place, there was a group of mountains huddled together in conspiracy to hide from the world a secret that sparked fear in the hearts of men. Yet most of those who made the stories had never seen the mountains, let alone what lay beyond them. Over the mountains’ summits and down through the forest there was a spectacular valley inside which an unusual town had made its colourful bed, and aside from the birds that admired it from the sky only traders from outside ever dared lay their eyes on it, for unless they came to stay outsiders were not entirely welcome. This was the Seelie Court.
The Court was rarely at its busiest during the daytime, but there was always some work that needed doing. They’d sent a group of human children over to the fields to help with the farming. The children had been talking all through the day, but their mentor was silent, save to doss out a few orders or corrections. He seemed to have some way with the earth, a sort of peace gotten from his years of work even though the fantastic world around them was heavy on his shoulders. There were whispered stories about the general, as they called him, the man everyone went running to for advice and wisdom. The handful of children milling about the fields understood a bit less and a bit more than their parents and their fairy friends had told them, but above all they knew that he was old. They didn’t need to be told it – they just felt it. He was to them as old as the mountains beyond the woods.
That was wrong in a way. Lorcan wasn’t too old by fairy standards (only one hundred and fifty), but it was right in another. Standing there as he was, he looked as though he’d always been there, working, and always would be. Nothing could stop him, not even death itself, even though he took better care of the plough horses than he did of himself. Still, the children were of the belief that a bit of dirt on the body hurt no one unless their mother caught sight of them.
It was nearing sunset now, and they were all winding down after the day’s work as the world around them began to wake and shadowy creatures prowled the dusk. Lorcan was still busy fixing the fence around the field as one of the children walked up and displayed a fat horsefly busily sucking the blood from his small hand.
“Hey, Lorcan, look. He hasn’t burst yet or nothin’.”
Lorcan hid his smile and turned his back, but his shaking shoulders didn’t escape their notice. “He’ll burst his lungs laughing at you if you keep him there.”
His laughter was short-lived as the children tottered off to their parents for suppertime and his eyes found a plume of purple smoke beginning to weave up through the tents and into the sky. The world on his shoulders felt heavier than usual, and he knew a long night lay ahead of him. His life had always been just so, but now he had a title to manage. It wasn’t as if the others always addressed him by it – the Court wasn’t set up like that. The way he saw it, the Court didn’t support the traditional political organisation either, whatever that was. There weren’t elections, but if you did certain things for everyone for long enough they came to expect it of you, and before you knew it the Elders were crowding around you to offer their advice. It didn’t help that most fairies avoided leadership like the plague and eagerly passed it on if it landed in their laps. As it stood, Lorcan was the ‘unofficial war chief’, the go-to guy in times of panic. Thankfully, theirs wasn’t a warring tribe – by and large, anyway. But there were problems now, problems everyone wanted to ignore.
There were tensions brewing between their small community and the surrounding tribes. If King Oberon wasn’t careful there’d be war. The problem was, there’d been raiding – from both the Seelie Court and the unhappy human tribes around them, for decades, and even though from the fairy side the raiders could never garner more than a small following, the conspiracy their plans caused was a frequent source of excitement within the camp. That was why it was impossible to stomp out the raiders – the gossip always rallied to protect them and put him on the wrong scent. He’d caught one or two, true, and whatever he’d said to them had scared them half to death and out of thieving.
If he was honest, he could see in part where the humans’ resentment came from. There’d been other Courts in the far past, and back then the fairies took no effort to be kind with anyone to cross them, human or otherwise, and waged many wars. Too many had been lost that way, and maybe that was why this ancient Court here and now was so small in number. Perhaps the past had fed into the rivalries of the present, and it didn’t help that these days the tribes were using the Court’s smaller numbers as a point against it.
But it wasn’t as if they’d always been totally against each other. When this Court had first settled in the valley a century ago it had absorbed some customs – and even some people – of the Scottish clans around them, and vice versa. Yet here they’d become known as inferior thieves, or on worse days the dangers of the night, and to others they were just taking up valuable space. In the old days no one would have dared stand against a Seelie Court. Maybe the tides of power were turning. That was why he wanted that old Queen Maeve back. One of the reasons, anyway.
The other thing was Queen Nona and whatever had happened to her. Some said she was getting on in her years, others whispered that she’d been hit by the madness of the Unseelie, but neither of those ideas sat right with Lorcan. Whatever pain she was going through in herself, it was getting too much for everyone else. Without her around to hold the Court together, the entire population of their valley was running to him with their every single problem. And, well… Oberon just wasn’t her brand of terrifying – his brand of terrifying encouraged attack from outside, whereas hers stamped out any resistance like ice engulfing a fire. She moved slowly in negotiations and was soft-spoken even in the worst of times, but before you knew it she’d strike and get her way.
Now she was fading. The Elders were still as functional as ever, but there was only so much they could do, only so much they could convince the people inside and the tribes outside the Court of. And, though this had always been the way for him, he now found in every direction:
‘Lorcan, how do we fix these tents?’, ‘Boss, they want to buy more cows but there’s no space so you go give them a telling off’, ‘Lorcan, those two are at each other’s throats again’, ‘Boss, help me do this’, ‘Boss, give us a hand’, ‘Boss, Boss, Boss!’
Lorcan waved at the woman making her way out to the fields from the tents. She was scarred to ribbons (each of those scars boasted a story if she was feeling talkative) and young in appearance. Her name was Morgan. As skilled as she was, she didn’t have the personality most would expect from a hardened warrior, bursting into tears if left the butt of any joke. She was Lorcan’s self-appointed right hand and tended to jump into conversations to make an entrance.
She leapt over the fence as she yammered on about the night’s news. Then she handed him a sword.
“What’s all this about?” he asked.
“The Warriors want you to come and train ’em!”
“You can tell them to piss off until they tell me the raiders among them. I’ve had it up to here with teaching them all this just so they can terrorise the… neighbours. A fairy who’s able for it could plough down twenty humans, and with magic it’s nothing to them. So I’m putting my foot down on this one.”
“Oh – that’s not – well, you know I don’t support the cross-raiding… but…” Morgan wavered as he glanced at her. It was a curious glance, but either she thought it was ready to turn into a disappointed one or she didn’t want to risk falling in his opinion at all. “Well, it’s just that it’s cross-raiding, right? Sometimes we need the supplies, and that hasn’t stopped them in the past either. And the humans have taken slaves. I know some escape, and I know some are eventually set free, but for the few unfortunates I don’t take issue with taking revenge for that.”
“Ours take slaves too.”
“Yeah, well we send them back unless they want to stay!”
“Have you forgotten the few unfortunates that never got the chance to go back, hmm?”
Her back was turned to him and she didn’t reply. She was looking at the ground, her spear cresting through the grass.
“What are you doing?”
“Drawing. Oberon told me that I couldn’t make a dog, but I can.”
Lorcan sighed and looked at the image in the dirt. Of course she’d taken it as a challenge. Of course. He didn’t bother mentioning that Oberon only goaded her so that she’d make art for him, since she was known for it. She’d figure it out after another decade or so, and he preferred the king alive right now.
“Oh! I did some listening on the gossip you wanted! It’s true, some people are starting to feel like we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. But most have been here so long they feel they have to fight for the land – if it ever comes to that – as a matter of HONOUR.” Morgan pounded her chest and gave a half-hearted roar as Lorcan’s eardrums warily started work on healing themselves.
“But, see, the thing is, well, what we usually do is talk it out, and when we figure out we’ve no option left we know you already have a plan. It’s not exactly a responsibility to anyone, but we trust you enough to do what’s right.”
“Then why leave it to me? If everyone knows they’re doing wrong, they should be able to do what’s right without being told. Anyway, any longer and I’ll be advising Oberon – and Nona – that launching a firm, organised attack would be wise, since that’s my opinion. Don’t look so eager.”
Morgan went pale and looked faint.
“That’s better. I’m going to see Nona.”
“Some say she’s become Unseelie –”
“Some know nothing. If you want proof, I’m sure you’ll ‘overhear’ it all.”
Lorcan walked by her and Morgan leapt away as if he was on a warpath, looking on in wonder. The Boss was angry, and it was a terrifying, unmistakable sight. The warrior knew that someone was about to get an earful, and she hoped it would be the right someone. If so, maybe things would change for the better.
She well remembered Lorcan’s rant to a whole group at the fireside one night after a sudden attack from outside. “The lack of security in this place is ridiculous! There are places outside this valley where towns and villages go into total lockdown while everyone’s asleep, where guards are sent out every night. This place is crazy! We send the youngest to put out the fires and light them on their own – no wonder we get lurkers waiting about. They’ve been here before, you mark my words, and they know our routine. We’re not invincible, so all you relying on magic to save you need a wake-up call. From now on, if you go into the woods or up to the river, bring at least one other person! And use your heads – there are hiding places everywhere if it comes to that.”
He’d said no more after that, but he had set up the twenty-four hour patrol for up in the mountains, though sometimes the guards got distracted or forgot they had a job. Lorcan was right – if insurance companies existed and believed in fairies, no one would touch them. Many people thought he was over-reacting, but they kept nearly quiet about it, which was saying something.
Men and women forever frozen in time said their ’hello’s or yawned at Lorcan as he made his way through the labyrinth of tents. The sun was setting, sinking low over the mountains. A few early risers shot him moans of greeting as they hung their laundry on ropes strung up between them, and on the bright side of a dark night, the valley had truly become Fairyland.
Tents crowded the valley as far as the eye could see, rich in colour and culture. Small tents, large tents, decorated tents, sloppy tents. On the washing lines above, fabrics from all over the world were hung up to dry, drips of water spattering onto his head as he ducked underneath. Two fairies argued over whose turn it was to wash more clothes and waved as he stomped by.
There was a strange jumble of diversity all around. Jewels from the Parthian Empire hung above the entrance to one tent, Arctic furs above another. Wind chimes tinkled sweetly, bells rang softly, and there was always some small, far-off sound that played with the listener’s attention. Smoke was made to dance and weave from nearby fires, and quiet laughter could always be heard from somewhere in the shadows. It was the most magical place.
But the Seelie Court was a travelling city beyond all of that, though it had been here for almost a century now. Queen Nona had started into decline around fifteen years ago, and if she was seen as one of the Unseelie things could get ugly fast, which was why Oberon hid most of the truth and Lorcan kept quiet about it, squashing rumours when he could. Unseelie were driven out of Court if they were dangerous, and that was more than often the case.
As he walked over the scuffed ground on his path, warrior tents sprung up in clusters, easily recognisable by the incredible amount of weaponry on display outside, to them a sign of how far you’d travelled and how many you’d fought to do it. It was Morgan’s job to train them tonight, as they all feared they’d need it someday soon.
By the time Lorcan arrived at Oberon and Queen Nona’s tent the last rays of sunlight failed to penetrate the blanket of clouds above, leaving the land below bruised the purplish-grey of dusk. Their tent stood out from the extravagant tents around it by being plain. Inside, it was filled to the brim with scrolls and letters from all corners of the earth.
“Oberon,” he grumbled, nudging aside a canvas flap to enter. Out of habit, he curled his fingers around the hilt of the sword at his waist as he looked inside.
The king looked over his shoulder as he slipped a billowy-sleeved white tunic over his head. His eyes were foreign to this land, his skin was olive-coloured and he was as thin as a twig. He was little over four feet tall, but that was only natural since Oberon had been twelve years old on completion of the Change and had stayed that way ever since. It was unusual for one so young to survive it, and although the respect he had was gotten by fear and he cared little about the well-being of the people, he did care about preserving the Court just as it was and had no tolerance for outside influence. He was about four hundred years old and had been king for two centuries. Part of the furniture, they always said.
“I wanted to talk to you. I’ve talked with the Elders and we think it’s high time the Court moved away from this land, and we’ll have to have a good, long talk with everyone who’ll complain about it, win them over whether they like it or not…” The room appeared to darken as Oberon stood, far stronger and fierce, fiercer than should have been possible. “We shall travel by winter, on the backs of snow followed by the slow crawl of ice! Many humans have perished in such conditions! Maybe that’s why so many fear us – we have seen worlds at their harshest and survived –”
“Later, Oberon. How’s Nona?” Lorcan’s eyes travelled to the woollen veil dividing the tent in two. The queen used to have her own tent, but these days couldn’t be left unsupervised. If he listened closely, he could hear Nona, tottering about, oblivious to the two on the other side.
“Flinching at shadows not even here and whispers never spoken–”
“I meant today.”
“She’s – Lorcan, she may not even recognise you –”
Any other time he would have waited for Oberon’s rambling report, but today impatience got the better of him and he tore back the veil separating the two sides of the tent. “Nona, you’re awake.”
Queen Nona furrowed her brow, squinting as she looked at him. It was almost as if sight was failing her. Perhaps she was dying, but he assured himself that if she was she’d be in a world of pain rather than constant confusion and forgetfulness at the best of times. “Lorcan, you’re out visiting. Lovely to see you so early in the…”
“Night,” he completed, sitting across from her. “It’s night time.”
“Had any other visitors today, have you? I heard Morgan came by.”
Again, she looked confused and he thought he’d have to go through Oberon instead of her if she couldn’t even remember what she’d been doing with her time only a few hours ago. Then she smiled and nodded, her eyes searching the tent as she sorted through the memories. “Oh yes. She got me a lovely ring. Look, isn’t it gorgeous? She’s very busy lately, isn’t she? Something important.”
“She trains the Warriors now.” And has done for the past fifty years.
“Isn’t that marvellous, making a name for herself…”
“Listen.” He took her hands in his, trapping her roaming gaze. She had the attention span of a child these days, and concentrating made her tired so he didn’t want to drag it out. “Morgan’s not the only one who’s very busy all around the place now. I’m working very hard and telling even more people what to do, Oberon’s sorting out things with those troublemakers across the borders – nothing to worry about – and without you running around keeping everything and everybody up to speed, things aren’t holding together as well as everyone would like.”
She leaned forward to whisper in his ear and told him that she knew the time was coming soon. But he had to take care of all of them for her, and make sure they knew her regrets. He squeezed her hand.
“If someone new could do your job, who do you think…?”
“We talked about this before, did we?”
He jumped in his skin, his eyes widening. “Yes, we did! You surprise me sometimes, you old bat. That was a good while ago, we talked about that. You said that what this place needed with the climate was someone with experience in battle and ruling, the whole shebang. You said who we all needed back was –”
“Maeve?” demanded Oberon, who’d been listening to the entire conversation. “Queen law-unto-herself Maeve? It’s a miracle she’s still alive. You’ve been keeping an eye on her as much as I have – she’s been making mischief all over the country.”
“Because she’s waiting for an invitation back. It’s a matter of pride, I bet, and she probably wouldn’t be tempted back without a good reason. If you two approve and convince the Elders, I think everybody else will give her a chance once she shows up and our intentions become clear.”
Oberon cleared his throat. “Well, perhaps she’s changed since we last met… she’ll have to be invited back to Court regardless. If we’re moving on, then the Festival needs to be arranged and all wanderers must be recalled – or at least invited!”
“How could you forget the Festival?!” gasped Nona.
Lorcan rolled his eyes. The king and queen weren’t even married – fairies were practical – but at that moment they might as well have been. What happened in putting them on the throne (there were thrones, but they only appeared on special occasions like elderly, imperious relatives) was that there were discussions. Everyone got to talk until they all agreed. These discussions could take months, years even, before an agreement was reached and everyone had their say. It was a step ahead of democracy and ten times as inefficient.
And then, of course, there was the Festival.
“Yes, how stupid of him. But if it is a matter of pride, like you say, I think we should… add a personal touch to her invitation,” was what Oberon’s mouth said. What he meant was ‘you’re going to do it, she won’t listen to me and I don’t like her.’ He helped Queen Nona back to bed, and as he and Lorcan went back to his side of the tent he folded his arms and looked the taller fairy in the eye. (This involved craning his head so far back that he came close to falling over. He covered this up by giving up and sipping his tea.)
A feeling of dread tightened in his gut, and Lorcan was young enough to follow instincts and old enough to question them. But he knew what this was about – he didn’t speak bullshit, but he’d spent enough time with the king to know how to translate. Party planning. He shuddered at the thought.
Oberon took his time, peering at the open map on the floor before him. Ever since the Court stopped travelling, he’d been running low on the colours it took to make them – this one was only half finished. “About Midsummer’s Eve... it’s four months away, but you will be helping.”
It wasn’t a question. It never was.
“With what?” Lorcan sighed.
“With everything. Nessa will have to deliver the invitations, so you can help him or her leave. In fact, I have a few more invitations to write out, and I hope you won’t mind finishing them while I finish your work.”
“Not too much! Too much’s unnatural! You’ll drain the soil of good stuff!” shouted Lorcan, but Oberon had left and was pretending he hadn’t heard. Lorcan sighed and settled down to writing. The papers had all been got in from abroad, along with most of Oberon’s fancy inks, but he ignored all of those. Before he touched anything else, he pulled Maeve’s invitation from the pile. No extra care had been taken with hers, but Oberon’s calligraphy was a step from godliness anyway. Hopefully she wouldn’t notice that, and wouldn’t care that his own was subpar.
“So you want to get rid of me, hmm?”
Queen Nona had ambled out again, hovering unsteadily above him. “That’s not true, Nona.”
“Don’t be stupid. I wanted her back anyway, more for myself. She’s been fighting the longest for anything she sets her heart on – when it comes to it, I won’t be able to protect anyone here, but they just won’t see it that way. I can only give them the tools to protect themselves. Maybe she’ll convince them it’s better to out-manoeuvre a fight where they can, really hammer it through. It’s just… you don’t look one hundred percent these days. A break’ll do you a world of good. Besides, there’s a math to it – whoever takes over has to be at least as mad as Oberon, in a kinda contrasting, complementing sort of manner. She works out.”
The queen shrugged. “It’ll take months to talk it through, anyway,” she muttered, then went slowly back to bed.
Left alone, Lorcan sighed as he got to work. Before it all, Nona had been in constant movement around the Court. She sustained outside relationships with the humans, she counselled fairies with their problems, she monitored the progress of young warriors, she helped to clean, to cook, to build, to hunt and gather. Amiable as she was, Lorcan had never managed to hold a casual conversation with her for more than two minutes, since she was always so busy multi-tasking. They’d lost a titan when they’d lost her.
When Queen Nona ambled out again to get some food she saw he was almost finished, and as if to prove there was still strength in her lungs, she went outside and screeched, “MORGAN! SEND NESSA!” before vanishing again.
“Everyone watching? Good!”
“I’m sleepy,” said one of the human children. “Stupid king,” it added. Its friends nodded and twittered in agreement.
“Shh! Are you men or are you birds?” Oberon hissed. “As if you’ve seen anything this impressive before.”
“He does this all the time,” said the oldest veteran. But they all did their best to quieten down and watch the silent field anyway.
Oberon hopped over the wall and placed his hand on the ploughed soil. With a cold exhale of breath, an unsettling blue mist began to roll off the ground. Then the first shoots of barley began to appear…
“Get ready with the water!” he shouted.
Morgan always paid special attention to anything in range of the queen’s tent. She rubbed her ear and said, “Hey! Nessa! You’ve someone looking for you at Nona’s place!”
There was a ’WHOOSH’ of air, and Nessa was off across the Court, zig-zagging at high speed through the tents. She took it slow, slower than she would’ve like, but she’d learned her lesson after getting tangled in not one, but eight, washing lines.
Lorcan had just put the inks back where they belonged in Oberon’s neat corner when she zoomed into the room. He wasn’t waiting long. That came with the gender discombobulated time-waster’s magic.
“How’re ya, Boss?”
“The Court’s moving on. Soon – stop, you don’t have time to say a word to anyone – I mean it, Nessa, wipe that smirk off your face. You know what happens when the Court moves on, don’t you?”
“I’m only eighty, haven’t seen it move in my whole life. Never did have trouble with moving though. It comes from training with the Fianna, and don’tcha know we did a fair job guarding Ireland from invaders so if –”
“Because there weren’t any invaders,” said Lorcan with a wry smile. He only half-meant it. Nessa was one of their best. “Now listen up: we’re having a party on Midsummer Night, and it’ll be madder than you’ve ever seen the likes of before. But first you’ve a job to see to. You’re the fastest we’ve got, so I want you to get yourself around all these islands and find all our people who’ve been off wanderin’. You’re to give them their invitations. Morgan and I’ve tracked their movements as best we can, so I can give you the maps you need.”
“Isn’t that Oberon’s job? Y’know, sometimes I forget what a nasty piece of work he is –”
Lorcan thrust the pile of papers into Nessa’s hands before she could say more. “You’ll be wanting these. And you’ll be wanting to get a move on, got it? And no getting side-tracked, you hear me? Here or anywhere along the way.”
Nessa sped off in a blur to go pack and had crested the mountain peak as Lorcan began a weary march towards the warrior tents. Still, at least they’d finally got it all sorted between themselves.
His good mood was postponed the second it began when he heard the dark laughter from nearby Oberon’s tent. It tried so hard to be dark it was silly. Here she was, their resident nuisance.
“If you’ve nothing worth saying quiet down, Kasumi.”
Kasumi tilted her head and smiled a smile that could almost be taken for innocence if there hadn’t been for that underlying trace of malice she could never fully hide once you knew it was there. “Where’s your little freak-of-nature runner going, Lorcan?”
“None of your business, that’s where.” He walked away. Oberon would have his head if he said anything more, though Kasumi was in desperate need of a slap across the face. Then again, the sort of people in need of a slap tend to set about making the other sort of people suffer seconds after they get their just desserts. It was and is a popular way of starting wars. But being a man not unfamiliar with war, Lorcan also knew that letting her get away with everything from murder to taunting was another way for all hell to break loose.
“I’ll find out. You can’t keep a secret from me! And I already know, anyway!”
Nobody cares, he thought, and he knew she had heard.
Bath, England, Three Months Later
Am I only here for the thrill?
That always seemed to be the question, but Maeve sat and pondered it longer than usual as she watched the Roman town shut down like clockwork from her perch in a tree, hidden within the outlying coppice.
It had been six years. Six years of her teaching Aisling how to read, how to write, hunt and fight. Now that the once-slave girl had come into her own, Maeve loved her more than ever, but she couldn’t help but feel… cold in her presence. Now that Aisling had so many of her own kind around her, the old queen found it hard to believe there was a place for her with Aisling anymore. She found herself leaving the camps for weeks on end, getting into trouble, sometimes trouble that put the entire camp at risk.
This time she’d been gone three weeks, and she doubted that returning would fill the emptiness that only kept growing inside her.
But now her eyes began to glow. Now the sun was set, and it was a good a night as any for a wander about town –
Maeve fell out of the tree, but landed in a perfect crouch with nary a thump, dagger in hand. Could this be what the vision had shown her?
She looked around. Though she’d felt a fairy presence for an instant there was no one here now, no one but the squirrels.
And a note, stabbed into her tree, if you could believe it. On Egyptian papyrus, at that. Someone was trying to tempt her.
TRAVELLER OF THE BORDERLAND
WANDERER OF THE NIGHT
It is time for the Court to move on to lands unknown. Leave behind all you once knew, leave it and return only to find it again.
THIS IS YOUR INVITATION TO THE LAST FESTIVAL OF THE SETTLED COURT!
The ceremonies commence on Midsummer Night, and the Festival lasts each and every minute of the following week…
Hmph, thought Maeve. For once, not only did she have little to say – she had little to think. With stiff fingers, she turned over the page. She didn’t expect anything special, for once, but fate would have it that all her expectations up to now were proved right.
To Maeve de olde queene,
Dunno why yur takin so long gettin yur arse back to Cort. De situashun is lookin dier since Nona’s got ill to de hed. Don’t rekkon yu care for her much, but I rekkon yu’d do de queenin bizness justis. Also I’ll be needin yur help meself – cud be a war between now and den.
Hahv a plesent day or nite
Well, there was a man who knew how to catch her interest.
Maeve folded the note into her dress, looking again to the lights of Bath. An idea entered her head and took root. “What d’ya want, Nessa?”
“I came to give you a lift,” said a voice from the shadows. “You’re important enough.”
“No… You don’t have room on that back of yours for two people… But thank y–”
There was another WHOOSH as the nightlife began in the town below, leaves were torn from their branches in Nessa’s wake, and Maeve was left on her own again.
Worcestershire, England, Two Days Later
It was almost night again, and in six years Aisling and Maeve had travelled across the land and the sea. Maeve had a love for all sorts of mischief: stealing, cheating, vandalism, and at first that was all they did. Nothing was too daring and she would try anything once. She didn’t like to do any of this alone either, so Aisling tagged along, often with an annoyed shake of her head and a helpless gaze into the sky as if to ask some greater god: why? Why is she like this?
Though she couldn’t say she minded being a wanted criminal too much. It was nice, being noticed. And she still was, just in another way, with a lot more helpers – for her, it’d become all about freeing the slaves, the abused, the abandoned and giving them a place to be. There was a lot of running involved, and they had to move around the country a lot too.
Today her group of fifteen found themselves between hills, as it were, though they were comfortable with it. The dark-haired woman had spent the better part of a day hunting, and returned to camp with a string of rabbits slung over her shoulder and pouches full of berries.
The horizon was spattered in reds and pinks as she kicked her heels sharply together, sliding masterfully down a slick, muddy slope. Grassy hills went on for miles, and woodlands spread out behind her like wings. From here she could see her hill and the souterrain.
A whiny voice boomed in her head as she went, an eager explanation from years ago. “Souterrains are made by fairies for fairies. They’re like earth houses, which is the nice way of saying ‘hole in the ground’. I like them though, since they’re built to last with stone, gives you a nice bit of shelter from the elements.”
Maeve loved to have her say about things, she really did, and she’d be proud of this one they’d found by chance. Most they found over the years were small, some only built for one, which meant Aisling slept outside (she’d gotten too tall to find much comfort in the smaller ones anyway), but every now and then there’d be a bigger, flashier one Maeve would lord over for a month or two. The reason she loved them so much was because of the darkness, since a proper darkness was hard for her sort to find anywhere, she said. That was the annoying thing about having cat eyes, she said, and the best night’s sleep while travelling was either found in a tent or a souterrain, she said.
This one was enough to fit ten of Aisling’s band comfortably, and she and a few others had pitched tents outside. There was a fire burning, since Robin had given no warning of Roman soldiers on the approach, and as she came down the hill some others came to take the food from her to prepare it for supper. They didn’t always eat this well and had made do with raw rabbit in the past. Their camp was testament to that – aside from the quick-pitched tents, all else they had were light travel packs scattered around, ready to move on at the first warning.
Aisling took the moment to have a rest in her tent. She’d sleep soon, if she promised herself. That was the good thing about calling the shots – no more ‘living by the night’, as she did when it was just her and Maeve.
But things were simplerthen, her head cried before she could stop thinking. It was simpler when it was just the two of us. No responsibility.
That was the part, deep down, that wished every second of the day that Maeve was here now and kept bringing it up at the Thinking Committee meetings like an angry toddler that’d lost its toy. She knew the others were good people in their own right. She knew they needed her like Maeve never would. But she didn’t have the same connection to them, not like she had with Maeve. It was a love that went past the physical, past circumstances and whether or not they’d seen each other for weeks the moment they were together all the time spent apart vanished and left them just as they were, as if they’d never been parted in their lives.
Still, it’d been different recently. Whenever she returned Maeve was either restless or she wallowed deep within herself for days until she took off again, sometimes to get them supplies but most of the time up to gods-only-know what. Sometimes after she left Aisling worked herself into knots, wondering if she’d be gone forever this time. But these days she didn’t have time to worry about Maeve, and when she did have it someone else consumed her thoughts, distracting her in every single daily activity.
Robin was a man they’d picked up a year ago; rude, yes, but side-splittingly funny. She spent most of her time thinking about him, imagining all the conversations they could have, all they could do. But in the year she’d known him she’d hardly ever exchanged a word with him.
So when she was outside again, sharing the meat with the rest of the group around the fire and he came running down the hill, all the conversations she’d imagined having with him leapt into her throat as she leapt to attention and strangled her. She could do nothing but stare, wide-eyed, nothing but words unsaid between them.
“There’s a rider coming this way. Only one,” he said, giving her a pointed look. “If it’s that fairy I’d say we kick her out.”
Aisling pushed past him, taking up her bow and arrows. Yes, all the conversations she’d imagined having with him were definitely more interesting – and kinder – than the man himself, even if the brief touch sent shivers down her arm.
She ran out to meet the lone rider.
“Maeve,” she sighed once she did. “Why’ve you stolen horses?”
“For a good reason! You remember me saying I didn’t want to return to Court?”
Aisling nodded. Time after time she’d dreamed of travelling with Maeve to the Fairy Court, but each time she brought it up Maeve would furiously shake her head and say ‘I’m not good enough to show my face there yet’ or ‘I can’t stand that place! Everyone just does whatever they want, it’s chaos!’ Not that you’re one to talk, Aisling would laugh, but then the queen would slam the door on the whole topic and sulk.
“Something’s changed, then? What is it, queenie?”
“A… good man needs my help. Lorcan – I’ve told you about him. I didn’t say King Oberon tried to stop me from leaving last time, but he and Queen Nona spoke on my behalf. I have to pay him back, I just have to, I have to prove I’ve changed. There’s been violence against the human tribes and he worries that there could be war before…”
She looked skywards. “Nice weather, tonight.”
“Before we leave!” spat Maeve, wrenching the knife out of her own wound and thrusting it deep into Aisling’s flesh instead. As Aisling paled she put more force behind her words, slicing, twisting, tearing her apart. “The Court will move on. Maybe to the east, the south, wherever. Anyway, before we leave there’s a party on. It’ll be easy to get you in – if you want to come.”
‘We’. Not including her. “You… you mean you don’t plan on coming back?” Does she hate me now? Have I done something wrong? Why does she always take it out on me?
Maeve faltered in her resolve, covering it up by shifting in her saddle, running her hand through her horse’s mane for a second before looking again to Aisling, a flicker of uncertainty faint in her eyes. “Do you want to come or not?” she asked lowly.
Aisling faltered too. She’d rarely ridden horses before and was almost daunted at the thought of the journey, at leaving her camp to fend for themselves – without her. But it was Maeve, and she’d asked, and if all she said was true this would be their last words, their last glimpse of each other, and in a matter of decades Aisling would be old and grey, wondering where her fairy friend had gone to. Wondering if Maeve even remembered her. She needed more than this to say goodbye.
She didn’t hesitate more than two seconds with the over-eager “of course I’ll come” that might as well have been a “please don’t leave me”, then rushed to explain the plan to the others, inviting them to follow on foot if they thought they could brave the vandals Maeve spoke of along the way. But ‘fairies are monsters’, they said, and bid her farewell.
“I always knew you weren’t like them,” said Maeve with a grin, as they rode off into the night. Starlight shrouded the world around them as they went, and Aisling knew in the few nights to follow she’d have to make a choice. And despite what her heart was telling her, she knew it wouldn’t be Maeve. She couldn’t keep pretending that her path was the one lit with stars and magic anymore, and soon it’d be time to go their separate ways.
Until then, they’d sing their wild merry songs as they travelled through the night.