In the Mid Hour of Night
Seelie Court Territory, Scotland, June 21st, Midday
Cupping his jaw in his hand, Lorcan stood with one eye on the action and the other on his worries. It had been four months now and the invitations had been delivered. Preparations for Midsummer’s Eve were an inch from completion, each tent bedecked with colourful garlands of flowers, leaves and herbs. Most fairies were awake, though many night-dwellers had given up helping to build the bonfires, taking naps wherever a patch of shade was on offer. Under the lazy eyes of the cat-nappers the usual yawns, complaints and jokes were made as those still working piled heaps of loose branches upon each other in the centre of the settlement. Tents had been moved away to widen the area weeks before, and tables already stood waiting for food to fill them. Lucky for them, some food could be grown by magic.
“Samara, stop daydreaming! You three – get up, you’ve been lazing about for long enough,” Lorcan ordered as he did his share and directed carts of wood and food, unloading them as they came to a halt. “And you lot, do you have any use other than gossiping? Yes, I can hear you! I don’t care who didn’t do it, either do it or don’t! Loki, devout as I am, ‘spiritual pursuits’ will not get you out of work on my time so stop making excuses. Yes, that applies to everyone.”
Since Lorcan’s temper was ready to run rampant, Kasumi was out for the picking.
“Where’s your little he-she freak, Lorcan? Has Nessa run away?” she cooed from her perch atop a sealed barrel of ale. There was an open cart of water beside the barrel.
He tossed the petty temptation aside to snap at her instead, but then he spotted someone easily out of place. “Morgan?”
In cat form, Morgan leapt from where she sat in the sun with her brother Mordred and the teleporter fairy woman, shifting into the form of a lioness as she padded over to him. She was easily distinguishable from any other animal – the white glow of magic rippled through her fur and shone through powerful muscles. Her orange eyes regarded him with quizzical expectance.
“You’re supposed to be scouting the mountain peaks with your group!”
Mordred and the teleporter slunk away to the other side of the growing bonfire in a small flash of pink light. As Morgan’s brow furrowed in confusion, her tail gave a flick of irritation with a mind of its own. “Grrrw?” I am?
Lorcan frowned in return. Something fishy was happening here, and Kasumi’s sniggers from the fringes of the worksite were telling. “I told all of the captains the schedules of their rounds at the meeting this morning.”
For another moment Morgan was bemused, then realisation hit. She growled in perplexed remembrance, then realisation hit again. With a roar, she swung on Kasumi, making a beeline for the grinning witch.
Lorcan jumped and caught Morgan by the neck, difficult as it was to restrain a lioness. “I’ll take care of it. You’re hours behind. Go.”
Morgan considered protest, then with an orange ripple through her skin she transformed into a falcon and flew out of his hands, away from them both.
Lorcan walked calmly back the way he came, keeping his thoughts closely guarded. It was tricky, keeping things from Kasumi, but he found that if he covered one thought with another she could be fooled.
“What’s the matter, Lorcan? Are the warriors late for their morning activit – EEEEEE!”
Lorcan’s arm shot out and pushed her so fast that even if she had seen into his intentions she couldn’t have stopped him. Kasumi’s head hit the ice-cold water, followed by the rest of her, and she was too shocked by the cold to scream or reach into his mind.
The young fairies who had seen whooped, laughing and clapping at the sight. The older ones rolled their eyes and shook their heads, returning to their work. Wherever she was, Morgan had heard it.
Lorcan was already gone.
They had crossed Hadrian’s Wall, throwing supplies to each other, slipping under the eye of Roman garrisons. In the long weeks it had taken them to reach the Court beyond they’d been attacked by several gangs of bandits on the road. It was unfortunate. For the bandits, that was. Maeve had stunned the unwitting humans with her firebugs, and the chatty fairy had even befriended one group!
They’d meant to arrive at the Seelie Court with a day to spare, but Aisling swiftly came to the realisation that Maeve had no worry at all for the deadline. It fell to her to worry for both of them, quietly ushering the old queen along whenever she got distracted.
“And then there’s Nessa. He used to be part of the Fianna – he could jump to the height of his chest and stoop under obstacles level with his knee at a run, even when he was human! He’s a talker and a trickster, so we get along – but if you hear him speak, be careful – he’s from Cork so he exaggerates everything!”
“I’ve never seen you this excited before,” said Aisling sorely, mainly because her muscles were aching after travelling for such a long time, but also because Maeve’s excitement was making her nervous. Once they joined the fairies, would she even need Aisling anymore?
For the first day or two beyond the wall she’d seen houses in the distance, but eventually they began to avoid the human settlements.
“Is this making the trip even longer?” Aisling asked, her soreness making her irritable after riding for so long. They took irregular breaks to rest, eat and sleep, which was fine and grand for an irregular fairy like Maeve, but Aisling had never ridden horses before and was beginning to loathe the experience. Ten days and she could hardly bear to move.
“We’re in Court territory now. Once they realised we were here to stay most humans left out of fear. Others who weren’t afraid came to join us, but the rest of the tribes are out for our blood. So we have to be careful. They’ve killed our wandering traders and they’ve taken slaves many times before.” She sighed wistfully. “They say it wasn’t always like this. People avoid us now as though we’re the walking dead, or flesh-eaters out of nightmares…”
Aisling was too sore to ask about that. Still, despite her aches and weary bones, the knowledge that they were finally on the doorstep of their destination fed the fires of her soul, lending her new energy.
It did the same for Maeve. The two continued with a hunger, urging their horses into a brisk trot, on what they knew could be their last adventure together.
The next day the faint shadows of mountains rose up in the distance. By nightfall they had reached the peak of the mountains, and the glow of bonfires below was easily spotted from the summit. As they began their descent, they came to a dense forest leading downhill to the Court. A bird rustled in the trees before them.
“Here at last,” sighed Maeve, stretching her arms above her head.
A woman dropped from the tree branches and before they knew what was happening they were surrounded by a dozen pairs of glowing eyes, their owners brandishing weapons, moving too fast to keep track of.
Aisling’s horse bucked underneath her and she reached for her bow, but Maeve shook her head as Nessa stopped running circles around them and laughed.
“Nessa, behave! Sorry about him, it’s only the three of us,” said the orange-eyed woman with a grin. She had black skin, marred by lighter scars all over her arms, neck and face, exotic beyond belief to Aisling’s eyes. Then another woman disappeared in a flash, then reappeared at the woman’s side, but she shook her head and the teleporter vanished, this time into the black of the forest.
“Maeve! Well done on gettin’ here practic’lly on time!” Nessa whooped, jumping over Maeve’s horse in an effortless bound. “Good t’see ya, girl! I’ll go tell Lorcan yer here.”
Nessa was gone in a flash, his after-image remaining for a split second. There was only Morgan left now, and she had eyes only for Maeve. They poked each other on the nose as she spoke her greeting. Aisling racked her brain for what Maeve had told her about fairy interactions, heart racing in her chest. They considered each other as equals. If they were merely acquaintances they would have stared, unblinking, for a while.
“By the Gods, you should’ve come back sooner! Nessa’ll tell you, I cried for days when you left, because everyone else around here just isn’t as fun, or thinks I’m a freak, or – who’s that?”
“This is my… friend, Aisling.”
Aisling started. Why’d she hesitate? She’d never paused like that introducing her before. “I can’t stay long. I’ve got people to get back to –”
“Aisling’s been liberating slaves for years, but they can take care of themselves while she’s gone.”
Morgan regarded Aisling with quiet suspicion, but turned and beckoned for them to follow her.
And so their quest recommenced, this time to the tune of Morgan’s life story as they navigated their way to the valley. First she explained that she wore only a green cloak because it was all she really needed, since it was the most practical choice for a shape-shifter. She was attuned to more animal senses this way, and her sense of hearing was remarkable, and so she was naturally privy to secrets she wouldn’t have been otherwise. If she’d been of a different brand of person she could have used this to work her way into favour and power. Thankfully she wasn’t, though her keen sense of hearing came in handy when dealing in gossip and bets (though it was seen as unwise to bet against her, it had become a tradition to fool any changeling new to the Court into doing it).
It quickly turned into a far more personal and pointed tale.
“And guess what – I found out my parents died after their village got raided for the umpteenth time, but I hadn’t seen them in a while since they’re recluses in the middle of nowhere. And the last thing I said to them was ‘I only came here to see the dogs’, but I was stressed because someone was spreading around Court that I’m Unseelie and should ‘go die in a hole’, but luckily Lorcan stepped in and snuffed that one out –”
There was a blur, and a curtain of leaves swept up around them as Nessa skidded to a halt. “I’ll take it from here, Morgan. You go ahead.”
Without protest, Morgan transmogrified into a hawk, caught her cloak in her talons and flew off into the night.
The conversation under Nessa took a more serious turn, but Aisling hardly paid any attention to it as she ducked under branches. She could see the world easily here thanks to the fairy lanterns that hung from branches on the path, their fires burning blue, green, magenta, white and purple. She reached her hand out each time they came close, feeling the heat graze her palm as real as any other flame.
“Amazing,” she murmured.
“Most of us suspect it’s Kasumi who spread that Unseelie rumour – Morgan must’ve told you about it? You wouldn’t know her, since she was out when you stayed here. A troublemaker, if you ask me, though she has charm enough to fool anyone who doesn’t know her game. Lorcan? Well, he has zero patience for her since she lied about being out lighting the lamps at night when a group of humans attacked. Really there was only one fairy there alone, and Kasumi lied about it just to get attention. I only know because I was the first one who talked to the girl who was attacked, and Lorcan showed up an hour later to get the truth out of me. He let the others believe the lie since the attack itself was the worrying thing. But Kasumi knows he got to the bottom of it, even though she can’t do nuttin’ about it without damning herself.”
“You don’t like her, I take it?”
“Well, she has it in for me, even though she won’t say it to my face, so isn’t it only natural to be against her myself? Anyway, just be careful around her. She’s been licking poor ol’ Nona’s boots for a good while now, so I reckon you’ll be her next target.”
At long last, the cover of the forest fell away and there were tents before them as far as the eye could see, tents made of material she’d never seen before with wild and wonderful decorations, lit up by the fires of those same fairy lanterns: green, blue, violet, yellow and more. Chickens and goats wandered as they pleased, since there was no fencing that Aisling could see, pecking at the ground and gnawing the grass.
Nessa led them onwards without pause. They passed wood carvings, dwellings overflowing with potted herbs and foreign scents, pottery from far-away lands and jewellery the likes of which she could never have imagined. Some tents were a form of magpie nest, packed to bursting with all things that shone and glittered. There was so much to take in it was too much, and still not a single fairy in sight. At Aisling’s side, Maeve was bursting with excitement, unable to sit still. She was home.
Nessa ushered for them to dismount and led their horses to a trough.
“I’ll go get Lorcan,” said Nessa, and with a wink added, “The Festival is that way,” before he disappeared into the labyrinth of tents.
Aisling and Maeve began to walk in the direction he’d pointed, and before long they were running towards the noise.
Earlier, they had seen the glow of the bonfires on the horizon, but now other sounds and scents beckoned them onwards. The sound of music and laughter grew louder the closer they got and the smell of cooking meat and baked bread was overpowering. The closer they came the faster they ran until finally they skidded to a halt, emerging into a massive cleared circle smack in the middle of the Seelie Court.
Aisling’s senses were overloaded immediately. The bonfires gave everything and everyone an orange hue, but the fairies had no need of such light. There were thousands of them, their eyes aglow, dancing, eating, talking, ghosting about from shadow to shadow through a scented smoke that coiled and wafted about from a source Aisling couldn’t identify, try as she might.
Long tables piled high with food and drink surrounded the edge of the party, allowing plenty of space for the dancers as they circled the bonfires or twirled aimlessly but happily about through the throngs of chatting fairies. Music played from all corners and spaces from all manners of instruments that Aisling had never seen or heard before in her life, but the sound allotted energy to the listener, an energy that filled Aisling with a restless exhilaration from head to toe.
She could have stood and stared for much longer had Maeve not grabbed her hand and yelled something to her she couldn’t hear over the noise of the Festival. Her meaning was clear though, and they ran. They pushed their way through the laughing crowds until they reached the dancing ring around the fire. Here, no one stood still and all she could see against the blinding light was the fabric of clothes, the tossing heads of hair, the cattish eyes and the giddy grins before their owners danced out of sight.
Maeve slipped from her side, darting in front of her, their hands still interlocked. With a grin and not a word, they began to turn around and around without care for beat or rhythm. In minutes their vision had blurred to a dizzying mix of oranges, whites and shadows. The heat from the fire battered and beat at them, but their fast movement in and out of range made it bearable.
The music drowned out all thoughts and words. Their hearts beat loudly in their ears, almost to the time of the tune. Their dance became more complex, each mirroring the movements of the other as they went round. Though there was space between them it seemed to fade, as if they were one person, for that perfect moment.
It wasn’t long before they were interrupted. Someone pushed by Aisling, grabbing Maeve by the collar. He was strong and fierce, his fur-rimmed cloak whipping around him, probably for effect. Maeve looked up and grinned slyly, her lips moving, and though Aisling could not hear the word, she knew the name.
Maeve laughed and threw her arms around him. Startled, he set her onto the ground and led her hastily away from the dancing ring. Neither of them waited for Aisling, but she followed, close behind. As they neared the fringes of the Festival it became easier to hear what they were saying.
“... good you’re back, queen or not.”
“I was right to leave, and you know it,” Maeve returned in a drawl. Abruptly she turned, spotting Aisling. “Aisling, go back to the Festival. Come find me later. He and I have boring things to do.”
Lorcan glared at her and Aisling grinned as she left the maze of tents behind, diving back into the Festival. Even though it wasn’t the same without Maeve, she was lost for words as she explored.
Many fairies were dressed in clothes that may as well have been from another world to her and it was mind-blowing, trying to navigate through those crowds. She was tall among even the male fairies, as many had stopped aging in their early years and most could hardly pass for adults, and so eventually she came to a spot where she could make out a beautiful throne over the heads of the crowd, decorated with flowers and plants and lorded over by a boy who looked as though he hadn’t lived more than a decade in this world. Aisling’s brow furrowed as she watched. The fairy boy had the mannerisms of a young boy while he talked with the fairies around him, but there was a dignified air about him as well that boasted a mind far older than that dimpled smile looked.
“King Oberon. Complete madman,” said Nessa, startling Aisling as he appeared behind her. “If you ever meet him, don’t drink his tea. I’ve only known a few who can stomach that stuff. But my, that Nona. I’d love to have them legs, let-me-tell-ya. Murder for Maeve’s hips too... you’re a good listener, Aisling. A perfect, apathetic little dove.”
There was an empty throne beside Oberon. The sight was inexplicably saddening.
“Who’re they?” asked Aisling, nodding to the cloaked figures sitting by a small fire near Oberon. Their backs were hunched and their movements were slow, laboured at times. Some frowned and some smiled contentedly, while others snored and more were close to dozing. Without even needing to take in their pruney, wrinkled faces, Aisling knew they were human.
“They’re the Elders. We don’t age, so it’s handy to have old people around to correct us before we do something stupid.”
“Yeh. Most are so old they make more sense than we ever could, and some are too old to make any sense at all.” He glanced at Aisling, taking note of his friend’s expression. “There are other humans around as well. Friends, companions, the odd family member. Once you dine with the fairies, you’ll never want to leave. We throw a hell of a party.” He straightened his yellow dress with a jangle of jewellery, proudly barefooted. “If you’ll excuse me, I expect Maeve will want you to join her.”
Nessa pointed in the direction of the throne before he disappeared in a blur. Maeve and Lorcan, led by King Oberon, were making their way towards the tents.
Resisting temptation to further explore the sounds, sights and scents of the Festival, Aisling went to rejoin Maeve.
Lorcan kept a watchful eye on Aisling as she departed. He and Maeve left the party, finding a quiet, darkened alley between tents so they could talk in peace. Above, the sky glowed orange with the fires.
“What did you think of the continent?”
Maeve sighed, knowing she was going to have to admit her defeat sooner or later. “I think it must be a fine place to be, if you’re a human and a Roman. I thought that I’d best return to the Court before my luck ran out.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have gone so far.”
He didn’t need to point that out. She felt guilty for leaving regardless of anything he said. “I’m sorry. I just thought it’d be… best to prove myself.”
“If we’d known Oberon would’ve had that affect, Nona and I would’ve interfered sooner –”
“Oh, I wasn’t trying to prove myself to him. No more than anyone else, at least. I’d been fighting for too long – but I’m ready to fight again, if it’s for you and the others. I don’t care if they call me Unseelie – well, I do – but I’m able for it this time.”
They sat propped up against the tent behind them. For a time they were silent. Maeve chewed her hair and picked at the dirt on her jewellery while Lorcan gazed at the stars. She took a moment to scrutinise him, wary. She’d spent little time with him in the past, and it hit her that she shouldn’t feel so easily relaxed and comfortable with him. Which instinct was right, she wondered? Likewise, she ended up tilting her head skywards as her thoughts rocketed back to earth.
“Thanks for helping me leave, though. Even if you don’t think it was right in the long run… I suspect it did me some good.”
“You earned a friend. ’Course it did. What’s she like?”
Maeve told him all about Aisling, then asked what it was he wanted her to do with herself here. What use was she to everyone else?
“You’ve fought, like you said. You’re still fighting something in your head, though I can’t tell you what that is or whether it’s real or worth it.” He smiled, eyes on the sky once more. “We’ll be leaving soon, and maybe there’s no threat on the outside that’ll have the chance to touch us. But I’m glad you’re back.”
They sat and watched the stars for some time, burning brilliant but alone.
Though they’d only spoken a handful of times, Maeve knew Lorcan’s way was a straight-forward one. He let people know exactly what he wanted and expected without any nonsense, and would take no nonsense from them either. If he was her ally, she was ready to try out the queening business again.
“Then I’ll talk, and gods help Oberon if he won’t listen.”
But when they decided they’d done enough star-gazing and retreated to the warmth of King Oberon’s tent later on, Maeve became more confused than she was convinced. It was clear that Oberon hadn’t changed his ways one bit – that was enough to drive her up the wall. The old fool rattled off on the same old stories, as enthusiastic and as prone to exaggeration as any old man. For all the world he was positively serene every time he paused to take a long sip of tea! He was exactly as she remembered him, without a care in the world for his people. He was too immortal, too stubborn, so a part of the furniture that he wouldn’t allow anyone to change the upholstery for the better without a fight first.
“After we announce your arrival you will truly be able to enjoy the Festival to its fullest,” said Oberon, tea in hand.
“Hmmph,” grumbled Maeve. She sat with her back straight in front of the fire while Lorcan prodded the slab of untouched meat on the plate before him he’d normally have wolfed down in seconds. He was ill at ease, and his mood was making her nervous.
She was about to snap at him for it when suddenly a rustle came from outside and Maeve instantly perked up. Aisling, she thought.
Oberon smiled briefly at the rotund woman who’d just entered the domain of the royal recluse. “The queen is sleeping.”
“I know,” said the woman quietly and breathily, her short black hair brushing her ears as she straightened from a bow. “I came to check up on you.”
Lorcan was nowhere near as welcoming. “What are you doing here?”
The woman in white eyed him, changing from shy to haughty as though someone had pulled a lever. “Like I said, I’m just passing through. Like a normal person.”
“Who is this?” Maeve asked, her calm tones slicing the impending argument to ribbons.
After waiting for an introduction she didn’t get, the woman smiled apologetically. “My name is Kasumi. I’m Queen Nona’s attendant, her advisor. I suppose I’ll be yours now, Ojou-sama?”
“Kasumi… helps with Queen Nona’s illness,” Oberon corrected. “Besides, Maeve is healthy and she’s brought her own ‘advisor’ with her, so your services won’t be needed.”
“Oh?” Kasumi raised an eyebrow and her voice dropped two octaves, but Maeve could not place the emotion written across her face as she smiled at the former and would-be queen. Maeve kept Nessa’s warning in mind, though she was to find out that that was the most dangerous place to keep it when Kasumi was involved. “I’m sure you’ll reconsider. Even if Queen Nona hasn’t been the best queen, I have taken care of her.”
“My apologies, but I have my own company. There are years of trust between us, an asset that cannot be replaced in times such as these.” Only I can’t keep her here, and she won’t stay. But I’m afraid of life without her.
Kasumi waved away the polite dismissal, seemingly unaffected. “Well, worries can wait for the moment. I have clothes and jewellery from all over Europe and Asia if you’d like some time to change.”
At the word ‘clothes’, Maeve reverted back to her usual ways, all too aware of the grime that coated every inch of her skin after their travels. “It’s about time someone had the decency to offer. You’d do well as a friend with that style. Kasumi’s an interesting name, too.”
“You think so? That’s what everyone says, but now that you mention it I was thinking of changing it to something that suits me more...”
Leaving Oberon, Lorcan and the sleeping Nona to themselves, Maeve left the tent with Kasumi. Pausing before she went into the night, she looked to Lorcan. He shook his head gravely, and Maeve was further intrigued by this peculiar woman.
“And that’s another mistake,” Lorcan said wearily, as Aisling slipped nervously into their company. She’d gotten caught up by a group of fairies who wanted to know all news of the outside world. Afterwards they had directed her to Nona’s tent without question.
Oberon saw her and nodded in welcome, but Lorcan had his back to the entrance and continued speaking while Aisling took in her surroundings. Once again, she had no idea what these Court fairies were talking about, but no matter. This tent was as interesting as all the others, if not making garish pleas for outward attention. The back of the tent was lined with makeshift shelves, all of which were jammed with jumbled scrolls, yellowed maps and other marvels of lands unknown.
“That woman single-handedly slaughtered a whole town of humans when she Changed, even if it was a long way from this land. It’s not right in the head, doing something like that – I’m warning you, that charming act won’t last forever.”
“What would you have me do?” Oberon challenged hotly. “You know she’s here because she was the only one able to help Nona, if only by a little. Besides, I am not convinced that she is one of the Unseelie. The Change may distort one’s sense of morality, but it can be short-lived. If it had such an effect upon Kasumi’s mind, would she really be able to hide it from us?”
“Who’s to say she wasn’t a nutcase before she was a fairy?” Lorcan glanced at Aisling. He’d known she’d been there all along, it seemed. “Sit down. You’re letting a draught in.”
The two lounged upon cushions arranged in a colourful circle at the centre of the home, and Aisling hastily stepped across the threshold to sit across from Lorcan. She took the drink she was offered and murmured her thanks, fascinated by a stick letting off bluish puffs of scented smoke near the fire.
“You’re Maeve’s pal, eh?”
As fierce as he was in muscle, his gaze was stronger. His cape, its collar rimmed with fur, lay discarded beside him, and his sword waited in its scabbard by his side. He wasn’t as scarred as Aisling expected – in fact, he had no visible scars at all.
“The infamous Aisling!” Oberon chuckled, drawing her attention away from Lorcan. There it was again. That unsettling, ancient mind carried on the voice of a child.
“Maeve goes on about you. Many dead would die again for the chance to join you and your band of free men. You’ve been doing great work, and you’re young for it too.”
“Ah, but who can tell how old the soul is, Lorcan?”
Finished his drink, he reached out to clasp Aisling’s forearm tightly. “Well, you have my respect for it. If your people want refuge, they can have it here.”
“It’s not your place to offer, Lorcan,” snapped King Oberon, though he didn’t go further with the argument. Lorcan must’ve had more respect than he did, if a stubborn thing like him wasn’t willing to push the point. “And how are Morgan’s patrol doing?”
“Half of them drunk as skunks, probably.”
Oberon’s went red. “Useless, absolutely...” He stood and poked his head outside. “Morgan le Fay!”
Aisling stifled her laughter as Lorcan pulled a face at Oberon’s turned back. Morgan elbowed her way into the tent. “You called?”
“Any word from the guards?”
“No, but they’re due to meet with me soon to switch around. We’re down a few since they wound up smack bam in the middle of the party somehow and drank themselves under the table.”
“Useless! If you don’t keep them in order, we’ll have you dismissed!”
In tears at the drop of a hat, Morgan stormed away to kick something.
“It’s not wise, dealing with her like that,” Lorcan warned. “She’s dangerous when she’s impulsive, and she’s impulsive when pushed.”
“Nonsense. I’ve been here for centuries, and you’ll find eventually that all anyone needs is a good kick every now and then to get them in line. Even your Maeve knows that, or did before she went off and became all liberal.” Done huffing, Oberon gave Aisling a withering glare as if it was her fault before raising a steaming pot of dark liquid. “Tea?”
“No thank you,” said Aisling, eyeing the blackish watery stuff warily. Dangerous stuff, from the looks of it. Thus, she became the first and last Irish person ever to say ‘no’ to a cuppa.
There was a shriek of laughter from outside as Maeve swept into the tent with the suddenness of a freak storm and over to plop herself down across from Aisling, swiping a cup of tea from Oberon and downing it in a gulp as she did so. “Aisling! How goes the Festival? Worth the wait?”
“Yes. Your dress is... nice, probably.”
“It’s a toga, from Rome,” Maeve explained. To counter the thin fabric of her Roman gown she wore a rich red cloak, and a gold bandeau shone upon her brow. She had always been a queen and now she couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. Even her hairclasps shone brighter, though their dents remained.
“Your advisor is human?”
Cold and condescending, the fairy woman accompanying Maeve drew herself up and literally looked down her nose at Aisling. She’d entered the tent with her arm looped through Maeve’s, but now she stood alone and fixed them both under a deadly gaze. Aisling wished Maeve would be choosier over the people she made friends with.
“Is it unusual to have a human as an advisor?” Maeve asked.
Oberon gave Kasumi a warning look as he refilled Maeve’s cup. “Unusual, yes, but this isn’t the first occurrence. It’s forbidden for humans to be either king or queen, but there is no such law set upon the advisors, if they have them.”
“There should be,” muttered the fairy woman for everyone to hear.
“That’s not for you to decide, Kasumi. It’s worked finely up to now.”
Kasumi stormed off, leaving a disgruntled Oberon in her wake.
“That one has a temper at times. Unfortunately, a fraction of our people reserve little kindness for humans. Kasumi is most certainly one of them, but we can hardly blame her – she was taken as a slave a few years back–”
“And murdered her way out,” came a grumble from across the fire.
“ – which was a perfectly reasonable response, even if the body count was… decidedly excessive and caused trouble for me. Whether she got herself caught on purpose or not is a petty thing best not spoken about within Morgan’s hearing.”
Lorcan and Maeve shared a look that Aisling picked up on but did her best not to think about. At that moment she was more worried about that spiteful Kasumi more than anything else.
Nessa hadn’t drunk much so far into the night, so when he fell over he quickly deduced that it was someone else’s fault.
“Why are you sleeping there?” Leaping to his feet, he mockingly rapped his knuckles against the sleeping Morgan’s forehead. The muscular fairy woman was curled up like a baby on the grass, just outside the circle of dancing fairies gathered around the bonfires. The noise was deafening and everything was lit up in orange, blinding in places. Nessa couldn’t imagine sleeping through this, so he had no idea how Morgan was out like a light.
“Hey, Morgan. You tripped me. Wake up and apologise, you lightweight. Unconsciousness is the coward’s way out.”
When further prodding didn’t awaken the girl, Nessa began to get bored, so he poured a barrel of freezing cold lake water on top of Morgan’s head. When the fairy didn’t stir an inch, Nessa began to worry.
Nessa’s distorted yell disrupted the relaxed chatter that had finally fallen over the High Court. He hurtled into the tent, so fast they could see and hear him properly only after he skidded to a halt. “Morgan’s in trouble.”
Lorcan didn’t need telling twice. He stood with his cloak and sword in hand and ran after Nessa, who was already gone.
“Something always goes wrong at a big party like this,” Oberon reassured Aisling and Maeve. The fairy king clapped his hands together and lit up in such a flash he might’ve been one of Maeve’s firebugs. “Since the Festival hasn’t yet welcomed you to the entertainments, a demonstration is at hand,” he said as he rummaged through a stack of multi-coloured pouches and pots in the corner behind a pile of yellowed scrolls and drying herbs. From a pocket he plucked a handful of flower seeds, dropping them into pots of earth set up around the tent.
As a finishing touch, he raced around and poured jugfuls of water on top of it all of them, ignoring Aisling’s stare and the roll of Maeve’s eyes. Done, Oberon skidded to a halt and raised his hands and flexed his fingers, a performer on stage. The pots began to shake. A blue haze filled the air around them and in seconds stems shot up from the pots, overflowing into leaves and flowers, roots coiling down into the soil.
Aisling’s jaw dropped. Her enthusiastic applause flattered Oberon, who bowed his head.
“You made flowers, plants,” she said, astounded.
“I made a seed grow,” spoke the pedant.
“The water is gone,” Maeve observed, bored. She’d seen this a million times before, but if they didn’t give him what he wanted he’d sulk for the night.
“The plant needed energy,” said Oberon, rejoining them at the fireside. “I can make any living creature grow, as long as it is capable of aging. Humans included. Don’t worry, I’ll let you age by your own time,” he laughed, as Aisling’s eyes widened, even though she was sure he’d meant to scare her.
“Does it work on our kind?” asked Maeve, still bored.
“No. On completion of the Change we rejuvenate, but we don’t age. Up until then I suppose it would, but I’d never attempted to prove that. The Change threatens body and mind enough already without outside interference.” He sat back and folded his hands in his lap. “Now, I must say you two are quite the pair. Is there something you’re not telling us?”
As Maeve opened her mouth to make her ‘I’ve made advancements’ speech, Aisling slapped a hand over her jaw, clamping it shut.
Before the king could taunt them further, a quiet moan came from the veiled section of the tent. Oberon froze for a split second, then jumped up and called, “Nona? It’s me, Oberon. You have guests!”
Queen Nona stumbled out of bed and crashed into the side of the tent, steadying herself at the last moment. “I’ll end up shaking the house down, one of these days,” she grumbled, stumbling to the fire. “Tell me, how did I come to be here? I’ve no memory of sleep, or anything before it.”
Oberon, though Maeve remembered the king and queen hating each other intensely, hovered by her side as she made her way across the tent.
“It’s the Festival, remember?” said the king as he helped her sit. “You’re well tonight, it seems. A sweet sight!”
True, the Greek fairy had once been. Her hair was long and red, grown to her thighs. Once it had fallen in graceful waves but now it was limp and dirty. Her skin had looked like sunlight filtered through a pot of honey but had lost its glow in the time since Maeve had seen her last. She had the kind of mouth that had once been full of mocking smiles and the kind of eyes that hid secrets in plain sight. Her smiles were gone now, their lonely laugh lines lamenting their absence, and her eyes had surrendered her secrets to ghosts and the torment they brought.
Maeve shuddered, feeling sickly in the presence of her sickly queen. She seemed lucid now, but would it last?
Already Nona’s focus was lost, and again she had a dreamy look, lost in her own mind. Then again, she’d often been like that so who could say if it was the illness? “Do you feel that? Something about the night feels strange, its shadows filled with more secrets than usual.”
“No, I haven’t felt anything of the sort,” huffed Oberon.
“You never could see well into the Borderland, could you? There’s something bad to come, you mark my words. And what’s this gentle mortal?” asked Nona, her glazed eyes settling upon Aisling who did her best to try look at ease with the deluded queen’s gaze on her, but no one was fooled. “Not a friend of mine, no friend of yours. A mortal, is she? Looks more like a ghost.”
“Calm yourself, Queen. She’s no enemy, if that’s what worries you.”
Nona tore a wilted flower from her hair, tossing it into the fire. She looked at Oberon with some concern. “These are bad times indeed if the mad are the only ones with any sense about them. Have you lost your ability to see into the souls of those around you? Some strain has you tethered to this time and place!”
“The Court’s strain is my strain. The spirits of others can wait.”
Oberon stuck his tongue out at her while she wasn’t looking, behaving as the child he appeared to be. Maeve cleared her throat.
“Nona, you remember Queen Maeve.”
“Yes. I liked her, as did Lorcan. Dead now, I suppose.”
“Sitting across from you, actually.”
“Oh, that’s embarrassing,” said Nona, seeing Maeve for the first time, a disgruntled fairy after she’d been overlooked. “Hello. Ah… I remember, I think. I’m going on holiday, aren’t I?”
“That’s what I’m here to talk about. I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be driven away from the world we love any longer.”
Oberon snorted. “Daft.”
“No, it’s true. No more of that, and no more driving each other away either, after we start again somewhere new. That doesn’t reflect the true justice of our Court, where everyone should be given a chance, an equal chance, from the beginning. It’s high time –”
Suddenly, all three fairies tensed, spotting something that was most definitely out of place.
Aisling frowned. “Are there supposed to be people outside?”
The figures outside moved with too much calculation to be fairies. Oberon’s eyes widened and he whispered something to Queen Nona. Maeve looked at Aisling and she nodded, reaching for her quiver...
Lorcan clasped his hands behind his back and eyed the fairies around him as Nessa dragged Morgan to the nearest tent at super-speed. The fairies paid the scene no attention. They were probably better off.
“Was she alone when you found her?” Lorcan demanded, tearing a wind chime out of his way as he stepped inside.
“Yeh. I thought she was drunk like all the others lying around.”
Morgan’s body was unharmed, but her stupor was unexplainable. Poison, maybe, although she showed no change in temperature, no sign of pain, her heart rate was fine and her breathing was even now. Her eyelids fluttered, and she moaned as if struggling to wake to no avail. “I’ve a bad feeling about this.”
It was already too late for bad feelings, for something else had happened, and he realised it as soon as he turned, glancing outside on a whim and walking from the tent to get a look at the Festival.
Lorcan took a step back, shocked as he realised the bonfires before him weren’t the only fires burning in the valley. It was hard to make out, but he could see a thin ring of fire beginning to spread from different points around the forest; a deliberate ring that would encircle the fairies and ensure that they would not be able to escape once the fire took hold.
He scanned the crowd for warriors, spotting few. Many of them would have been on guard in the mountains, yet no alarm had been sounded, no messenger sent. The attack was already underway, and Lorcan knew that most of these people were intoxicated and incapable of putting up a good fight. Even if they were, where could they retreat if things went sour?
“Nessa, you’re my only friend. You are no longer Nessa, you are the Friend, and I just want you to know that –”
Lorcan grabbed Nessa and the newly-awakened Morgan, dragging them both outside. The two stared as Lorcan looked at the Festival. They had to do something.
“This is ba-a-a-ad.”
“I can hear them – they’re everywhere! Two thousand, at least! OH MY GOD, WHAT DO WE DO?! GRAB YOUR WEAPONS, HIDE YOUR KIDS! AAAAAAAAAHHHH!”
Lorcan’s thoughts were speeding, muting any panic. The enemy had invaded. On starting the fires the attack would follow within minutes to ensure the fairies were not given time to escape. First would come hoards of easy targets, but in their masses they would keep the bulk of the Court from escaping. Then the real fighters would step in to counter the magic that would have served as saviour to the fairies left standing. After they had done their job, a clean-up crew would be sent to pick off survivors. The forest fires would take care of the rest.
Their defeat was unavoidable, death almost a certainty.