Authors: Anne Eliot Crompton
Copyright Â© 1999, 2011 by Anne Eliot Crompton
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Stranger, wandering this wood,
Come share my fire.
Share crumbs of traveler's food
And tales. Come nigher.
I know the trail you take
By mere and mire.
I've seen the cliff and lake,
With dawn afire.
Through this enchanted wood
Leads but one trail.
Richly or roughshod
Or armed in mail,
Seeking crust of bread
Or Holy Grail,
All travelers are led;
All travelers come
By this trail, home.
Knee deep in Fey forest pool, I bend to see my own, new face. Today I am new. Today I am free.
Back before dawn, I wrapped my green, “invisible” cloak around me. I took up my wee bundle of clothes, knives, and fire flints, and tied my Bee Sting of poisoned darts to my belt.
In last darkness I studied the faces of my sleeping friends. (Fey eyes see in the dark like owl eyes.) I thought,
Likely, we will not meet again for a while. And when we meet, we will all be changed.
Our branch of the Children's Guard was a small group of girls. By now the Goddess had blood-blessed all of us. It was our time to go free. We were like a nestful of fledglings trying out new wings; I was only the first to fly.
Once before, I had flown a nest. I do not now remember walking away for the last time from my mother's den. Maybe I didn't know then that it was the last time. Maybe I thought I was only going to hunt mushrooms, or play with a friend. I did not guess, then, that my first new, spirit wings were fluttering.
I do remember looking around at noon-bright trees and rocks and thinking,
I won't go back to Mama. I'll stay out here.
Then, I suppose, I may have met one young friend, and then a new one, and then an older Guide. I must have joined the Children's Guard almost without knowing it; as a fledgling sparrow joins a fluttering flock.
This morning my “wings” bore me away again. Light as dandelion fluff, I stepped over two girlfriends and around a third. Silent as a breeze I stole away from our clearing.
Today before dawn I grew up and ceased to be Child Guard, Child, or Guard. Today and forevermore I am simply Me: Lili of the Fey.
I bend to morning-bright water. Leaves and twigs float about my shadow. Lower I bend, searching shadow. A fresh, new face rises toward me: round, darkâbig dark eyes. The mouth pouts too sweetly. Sternly I straighten my lips. Relaxed, they sweeten again.
Here under overhanging leaf-shadow my aura reflects faintly in the pool. I glimpse it as a wide, blue cloud whose edges fade in reflected sunlight.
This water-girl shows me who I am now, and who I will be for a long time to come. Later, this face will change. It will coarsen. One day it will wrinkle. But I, Lili, will still be free. Always I will be free, and always cool as this water that chills my knees and the black mud that clothes my feet. For I am Fey.
My black braid slips like a snake down my shoulder. I watch the water-girl's braid slip and drop. The two black braids reach out and touch. Shivering water, shadow, and light shatter the water-girl.
Nesting blackbirds dart and call over the pool. Spring toads peep. Ahead, a twig snaps.
That will be my blundering Human friend Percy, come to meet me. Silent motion is too much to ask of Percy!
I sink cupped hands, raise cool water toward my lips.
From behind I hear a strange, faint sound: a quiet, repeated
Cupped water halfway to thirsty mouth, I pause. Listen.
Hah! I have heard this sound before.
I have heard it while I perched in treetops, wrapped in my green invisible cloak, watching the Kingdom outside, guarding our forest from invasion.
(Something I will never do again! From now on I will be free to live my own life and be only Me.
True it is, the Goddess will demand Her sacrifice. This debt I must yet pay. But I have time a-plenty for that.)
coming nearer; I have heard it pass by my spy-perch many a time. Sometimes wheels creaked and squeaked, sometimes armor rattled and clanged. This is a Human Kingdom sound from the world beyond forest. Never before have I heard it in our forest! It is the sound of slow-plodding horses' hooves.
Noisy Friend Percy wades into the pool.
My eyes still look on my shadow. The water-girl is back, cupped hands halfway to sweet lips. She and I see Percy's reflection wade toward us, huge and flaming-bright, like Percy's very presence in our forest. His reflected aura ripples large and broken, orange in green water.
Always, the Children's Guard avoided Percy as a flock of blackbirds avoids an albino. Nervously, they resisted my early attempts to draw him in among us.
“You can't fish with that Percy. The fish think his hair is the sun, and dive deep.”
“You can't hide with that Percy! No one could miss that blue stare of his!”
“You notice he's got hair growing on his chin?”
“He's good with darts. And that's all. What do you see in him, Lili?”
Never could I say what I saw in him. My friends were right, he was good for nothing, not even for sex play. Gods witness, he lived with his
, like a toddler! I soon gave up trying to make him a Child Guard. But we met here at this pool, or in his secret tree-den, for years.
We first met on Apple Island, home of Nimway, revered Lady of the Lake. I poled a coracle over there to learn magic, for my Guide had told Nimway I had talent. I saw auras, and fairies, as few do; and once I put a small curse on a small boy who stole my string of fish. The curse worked. I don't think that boy has caught a fish yet.
There on Apple Island little Percy and little I first met, under the interested gaze of the Lady, and the anxious gaze of his big Human mother, Alanna.
The Lady's gray friend Merlin also watched us meet. Later, he watched us play. Half-Human himself, Merlin saw no harm in our romping, Fey and Human together. When we tired he brought out his harp, Enchanter, and sang us Fey songs. If I were alone, magic lesson ended, Merlin might sing me Human ballads. What very little I know of the Human Kingdom I learned from those ballads.
But Percy heard only the Fey songs, never the ballads. For his mother Alanna had begged Merlin never ever to sing to him of the Kingdom; and kind Merlin never did so.
From those ballads I learned of the Human Heart. Merlin called it the World's Greatest Magical Power.
Once he said to me, “Your friend Percy will grow a Human Heart. He doesn't know it, but it's growing now inside him.”
“What about me? Don't I grow a Heart?”
“No. You are not Human, Lili. You are Fey. Be glad that Heart is not a gift of the Fey! For Heart is dangerous.”
“Far as I can see, all magic is dangerous!”
Strumming Enchanter, gray Merlin nodded.
I leaned on his knee. “Mage Merlin? What Fey gift will come to me?”
“Simplicity.” Merlin struck a sudden, bright chord. “Clarity.” A deeper chord. “Freedom.”
This last chord brought unchildish tears up in my throat.
Merlin said, “Humans rarely find any of these gifts, because of the constant clamor and uproar of their Hearts.”
Still and all, I longed for a Heart!
I still do. If Heart is truly the World's Greatest Magical Power, Gods witness! I want one! (This may be what I see in Friend Percy. Maybe I hope to catch his Human Heart from him, as once I caught a cough. Maybe that's why I trouble with him at all.)
Here he comes now,
From the trail behind, three horses approach.
I lower cupped hands. Water spills back to shatter the water-girl again. I glance around.
Three dark Fey maidens flit by on the poolside trail, nearly invisible in shadow. Only the gleam of merry eyes and filed teeth betrays them. For the rest they are shadows, gowned and leaf-crowned as for a Flowering Moon dance. They vanish around the next bend. I doubt that Percy notices them.
The three coming horses carry Human riders. Alert now, I hear the rub of leather, the thump of hilt on thigh. A wave of Human odor drifts over the pool like smoke.
Never before have I smelled it so close!
Somewhere ahead, these three maidens will waylay the three riders. First they will seduce, then kill them. No fear that these riders might leave our forest alive. How they ever entered it puzzles me. The Children's Guard should have sprinkled them with poisoned darts at the forest's edge. Unlessâ¦maybe the Children's Guard let them through to entertain the maidens?
I swing braid back, glance over shoulder.
Around the trail bend appears a gigantic, enormous whiteness. Big white head dips and nods. Big feet plod. An innocent, grass-eater's smell lightens the gross Human stink.
It is a great, white horse, laden with Human baggage, and with the Human giant rider himself.
Behind it appears a brown horse with another giant rider. Then a gray horse with rider. Where sunshine strikes through leaves the mixed auras of men and horses gleam orange, brown, and a trace of black.
Having spied on the Kingdom often, I know what these riders are. They look like sun-shining Gods, clad in shirts of stone. But under the stone, they are merely giants. Human men. They are fierce and strong. They carry sharp weapons. But they are also slow, easily outwitted, easily outflitted. We Guards used to tease their kind from our treetops, laugh at them, send Fey songs downbreeze to them. They never even looked up. Slow! (Like Percy.)
I glance at Percy.
Beside me now, he stares goggle-eyed at these apparitions.
Percy never perched with the Guard in border trees. He seldom reached the forest edge at all. His mother Alanna warned him off from it. She feared that we Guards might bee-sting him. For Percy is Human, after all; and no Human who sets foot in our forest ever again sets foot out of it.
So Percy has never seen such proud and shining figures before. Come to think, Percy has never seen a horse before!
Once at this pool I saw a bright Spirit sweep great rainbow wings about itself, so brilliant as to shadow the sunrise. So now Percy's orange aura flares high above him and flames red. It sweeps itself down around Percy, and around his reflection.
Thigh-deep in cold pool water, Percy stared at the advancing Gods.
Never had he seen such shining, magnificent beings. Horses he had heard of, but he had not imagined them so big, so gleaming! And never in Merlin's songs, or in his own mysterious dreams, had he a hint of such riders!
Leaf-filtered light glanced off their heads, their broad breasts. Glinting beaked caps shadowed their faces, doubtless to shield mortals from the glorious glare.
Must worship them!
They might bless him. Somehow, they might lift him up safe above his meaty, sweaty, lonely self. Or they might kill him with a glance. Gods are unpredictable.
Don't care! Now I've seen them, I can die!
Unknown, unguessed joy swept over Percy's soul like a sunrise cloud. He whispered, “Lili! Come worship these Gods with me!”
Silence from Lili.
He stole a quick sidelong glance from the Gods for Lili.
She was gone. Vanished without a ripple. The Fey had a disconcerting way of doing that.
Ho-so! If Lili feared the Gods' death-dealing glance, she did not deserve it!
Percy splashed and scrambled to leave the pool. Eyes on the Gods, he tripped on a drowned branch, fell full length, crawled out, and stood up, flotsam dripping in his eyes. Wildly brushing weeds and leaves from his face, he found the trail; panting, he faced the Gods.
They had stopped dead, watching him; the first one pulled a great long, heavy knife rasping from its ornate sheath.
Percy knew what to do. After all, he worshiped God and Holy Mary every night with his mother Alanna. He crashed to his knees on the narrow trail, pressed palms together, and fixed the first God with his prayerful gaze.
The God's great white horse snorted and half shied.
The rider leaned forward and looked down on Percy. Now might come the death-glance from his immortal eyes.
Percy cared not a twig. Joy like that of Alanna's angels and saints in Heaven burned away all thought of fear.
The first God raised a gloved hand, pushed back his shining cap. Pushed the long knife, rasping, back into its sheath. Laughed. His laughter rang from tree to tree around the pool.
He shouted words at Percy, to Percy. He spoke differently from the Fey. In an astounded moment, Percy understood him.
Holy Michael! He speaks Alanna talk! Human talk!
“Ho, boy!” he shouted. “What do you there? If you love us so much, get up and lead us to shelter. Goddamn, we've got a wounded man here.”
What? Shelter? Gods want shelter?
Percy's head swam with shelters to which he could not lead these Gods. Powerful as they were, he doubted they could pass the statue of Holy Mary that guarded Alanna's den. Even if they could pass, they could not squeeze their shining, giant selves into Alanna's den. Percy's own secret oak den would crash to earth under their weight. Only the Lady of the Lake's wonderful, Human-built den on Apple Island might suit them. That had stone walls and a roof, the only such in the forest! But the Lady of the Lake welcomed few guests. She would likely turn these Gods into frogs and roast them for dinner.
What did he say, a wounded man! How can a God be a wounded man?
Astounded Percy found stammering voice. “Thenâ¦are youâ¦men?”
“Are we men? Are we famished men? Ho ho! What think you, boy?”
“I took you for Gods.” Percy lowered still-clasped hands.
“Gods!” The leader laughed softer this time.
“Have you never seen knights before in your dark woods?”
“I have notâ¦Sir.” Alanna's Human friend Old Edik liked very much to be called Sir. It always raised a smile with him, or at least erased a frown.
It had a like effect on this leader. His stern gaze softened very slightly. He pushed back his cap, revealing a gray, lined face completely framed in gray hair.
Holy Michael, he has a beard! Like me! Only thicker.
“Hah. Huh.” The knight swiveled in his saddle and said to the two behind, “Good place to campâ¦Shadeâ¦Waterâ¦This boy can bring us meat.” He turned back to Percy. “You can find us meat, can't you, boy?”