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There were pawbeats on the dirt road.
The entire town burst into a frenzy. People ran from house to house, shouting that the Baron was coming, the Baron was coming. Those lucky enough to be at their homes hid their livestock and children. And the Baron’s hound continued to gallop up the road.
By the time he was within sight of the town, it looked abandoned. The Baron reined in his hound – he rode bareback – and smiled a mouthful of slavering fangs. Doubtless he could smell the hiding villagers. Evvy watched from the inn window as the fey dismounted. He surveyed the town, still grinning grotesquely, and then approached the inn.
“Evvy, get the door!” her father roared. Evvy swung the door open and curtsied to the Baron. He didn’t so much as glance at her. Instead, he walked to the counter and sat, putting his green top hat down.
“Would you like something to eat?” her father asked, almost shouting in fear. “We’ve got a menu – Evvy, give him the menu – or if you want something to drink we’ve got that too –“
“Ah, yes”. The Baron entwined his taloned hands. “I would like one of – it is a small thing, like a bird – I see them running around in your fence.” His accent was slight, but the way he precisely chose his words was strange.
“Do you mean a chicken?” asked her father, terrified of being wrong.
“Yes. Perfect.” The Baron smiled again. Evvy’s father hurried a struggling, squawking chicken to the Baron, who devoured it on the spot and arranged the bloody feathers into a neat pile. Everyone watched, no doubt imagining if they might end up in the chicken’s position. The Baron leaned closer to Evvy’s father, who appeared to be trying not to recoil from his breath. “Tell me, human,” he asked, “your people, are they afraid of all fey this way?”
Hesitantly, the man nodded his great bearded head.
“Very good.” The Baron settled back. “This is a fine place.”
“I’m – I’m glad you think so much of our little village.”
The Baron only smirked at that, jagged teeth poking out from his smile. He took his top hat, placed it on his head, and glided off. Everyone in the inn started breathing freely again and resumed moving. Outside, the Baron coaxed his hound into dropping a sheep it had in its mouth.
Evvy stopped wiping the table she was working on and stared out the window, thoughtful, almost wistful. She wished she had said something to him, just for the sake of speaking with him. Someone shouted her name and she turned back to her work, scrubbing indignantly.
No one liked the fey, except Evvy.
They ran the world. There was a legend that the land had belonged to humanity once long ago, but there was no hope for that anymore. Now humans lived like animals in tiny towns while the fey lived it up in their huge gleaming cities, occasionally emerging to eat the women and children and take the men back as exotic pets.
Sometimes, no one knew how, the fey would steal into a child’s room, take the child, and leave an identical one of their spawn in its place. There had been a boy like that who had been around Evvy’s age, way back long ago. He seemed just like all the other children, but one day his parents had caught him eating a kitten and promptly taken him to the middle of the woods and tied him to a tree. Evvy could only listen to his howls for a few nights before she had to sneak out one night and untie him. The boy had grown a snout and talons and pig’s ears by then, and had turned a pretty shade of orange. He growled a quick thanks to her before loping off. His parents went missing a few weeks later.
Evvy had always wanted to be a changeling. She was seventeen now, though, and wasn’t going to change. She was a little bitter about it, to tell the truth. She had heard from legends and from the writings of escaped pets about the lavish lives of fey, about their beautiful glassy dwellings and their entrancing music and their massive celebrations. The existence humans eked out here was hardly a life at all in comparison. Evvy had heard of people who had appealed to the fey gods and been granted access to that charmed life. But even if one could reach the gods, Lady Chaos and Lord Misfortune were capricious beings, and one was just as likely to end up dead or worse.
The man who appeared outside of town one night wore a long blue coat, and his face and hands were bandaged. He wandered through the empty main street, among the shadows on the dirt road from the flickering warmth in the houses. He stopped at the inn and rapped on the door.
Evvy opened the door, a bit disgruntled at having to take a customer so late. “Would you like a room?”
“If you could.” The stranger had a mellifluous bass voice.
“Come in. I’ll set you up with something.” Evvy left the door open and went up the first half of the stairwell, calling for her mother.
“Sorry to bother you so late.” He sat on the couch in the dimly lit foyer. “My home town was pillaged and burned by the fey. I managed to escape with my life, barely. I don’t know if anyone else did. I fled through the forest, and this was the closest town.”
“The forest? You poor man.” Evvy had heard horrific stories of what went on there.
Evvy’s mother bustled down the stairs. “It’s twenty dollars a night, dear,” she told the stranger. “Breakfast comes with it, but lunch or dinner will cost you extra.”
“Here,” said the man. He rooted around in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled bill, with its picture of the old legendary hero on the front. As Evvy’s mother took the bill from his hand, the bandage on his fingers slipped. Even in the dim light, they could see that his skin was bright blue.
The man hurriedly replaced the bandage. “I, uh – in the forest –“
“FEY!” Evvy’s mother screamed. “There’s a fey in my house!”
Upstairs, Evvy’s father stormed toward them. Outside, lights flicked on in the windows.
The fey glanced from side to side. “I don’t – I’m not –“ he stammered, then gave up and bolted out the door. Evvy’s father raged after him, armed with a rifle, as Evvy’s mother rushed back up to her room. From the other houses, the men ran out in parallel. The fey’s silhouette outside spun indecisively, then loped off towards the words. There were gunshots and jeers from the mob, but they only ran after him as far as the forest. For a minute or so, they milled around at the edge of town, and then they dispersed back toward their houses, muttering threats. Evvy’s father returned, calling out reassurances to her and her mother.
And the whole time, Evvy just stood there, wishing she had done something, though she didn’t know what.
There wasn’t much talk about the incident after that. There was a general feeling of pride at fending off a fey all on their own, and a pervasive anxiety about it coming back. They set up guards at the edge of town, but there was no sign of the intruder. Life went on. These were just things that happened sometimes.
Evvy couldn’t stop thinking about it, though. There were no roads from the town other than the one he came in on, and the forest became very thick after the edge of town. She doubted even a fey could make it through, especially without a hound. So what had he done? Had he tried to brave the woods, or was he still there, trapped? It plagued her mind for nearly a week. Finally, that Saturday, she took some leftover chicken from the fridge and an apple from the fruit bowl and went out to find him.
It was a really stupid idea, actually. He’d probably kill her. Wasn’t much to eat in that forest. She’d just have to put the food down and run. That would work. She had no idea what that would accomplish, but it would work.
She found him just outside town, sitting in a clearing. He had removed his bandages and hooded cloak, and wore a silk vest and slacks. He was a beautiful blue, like a gem, with midnight hair, skin covered in silver markings like symbols or impurities. His thin folded limbs looked like a cluster of branches. His head was down, and he was singing softly to himself. His wolf’s mouth was not so horrible on second glance. A small pile of animal bones lay at his sandaled feet. Evvy crept up, placed her basket on a convenient piece of flat ground, and darted off.
The fey roused himself, shook his head, and stood up suddenly. “Hey,” he called to Evvy. “Hey, wait.”
Evvy stopped. Supposedly a fey’s voice could enchant you, but her opinion was that she had acted of her own accord.
“So, uh… why’d you give this to me?” he asked. He opened up the basket and rummaged through it, examining the chicken sandwich and apple with puzzlement. “You know we can’t be poisoned, right?”
“Oh, no, I wasn’t trying to hurt you,” Evvy said, blushing. “I just… I was wondering if you had enough food. I felt sorry for you.”
“Really?” The fey smiled earnestly, showing one or two of his sharp yellow teeth. “You know, I thought… I would think that most humans wouldn’t care about it at all.”
“I don’t really think of it that way,” said Evvy, moving closer with what she hoped was some degree of subtlety. “I don’t think it’s right to be mean to you just because of what a few other fey do.”
“That’s… smart of you. You seem to be the sanest person I’ve met since I left. Maybe since some time before I left.”
Evvy took this as a good sign and sat down on a mossy stone across from the fey. “Why’d you leave?”
He grinned sheepishly with those animal teeth. “Well, I didn’t precisely leave. I was more like banished.”
“Banished?” Evvy was as intrigued as she sounded.
“Yeah.” He sighed. “I’m a poet, you see. The nobility, they want all poets to do menial labor as well as writing. They can’t stand what they see as unproductivity. I refused to work. I told them that even humans have enough sense not to force their artists into laboring. They said that if I admired humans so much I could go live like them, and threw me out of the city. So I wandered to here, hoping that if I pretended I was one of you, your people would accept me. I was wrong, I suppose.”
“They’re just ignorant. You’re much nicer than the fey aristocrats we’re used to.”
“Yeah.” He was seized with a need to expound upon his morals. “I don’t eat humans like they do. It seems so pointless to me. Why eat an intelligent creature when there are so many other animals around?”
“That’s a very moral position to take.”
“I also don’t eat pigs or monkeys or whales or dolphins,” he told her with pride. Evvy was so enamored with his morality that she barely noticed she was being compared to swine.
They paused. “So,” Evvy said finally, “are you going to just stay here?”
“For now,” he said. “But I have a plan. I’m going to write a poem so masterful that they’ll have to let me back into society. I’m sure I can do it.”
“Could I hear some of your poetry?” she asked him.
He looked skeptical. “It’s not in your language.”
“Well, I can still get the sense of the sound of it.”
He shrugged and began reciting. His voice was like an ocean, the poem rolling and breaking. The fey language was exotic, harsh and sharp but not brutal, with sounds Evvy had never heard anyone produce. For her part, Evvy was enthralled. She imagined that the poem was about a hero on a dangerous journey, assailed by creatures beyond imagination. She figured there was some fey enchantment entwined in with the words. She didn’t mind; it was beautiful.
The fey finished speaking and the spell was broken. Evvy applauded with glee. “That was amazing!” she told him. He smiled and looked away modestly, blushing indigo. Only then did Evvy realize that the light was gamboge and that the trees cast long twisting shadows. “Damn, it’s getting late!” Evvy said apologetically. “I’d better get back home.”
“That’s fine. Thanks for the food and for keeping me company.”
“I’ll visit you again,” she pledged suddenly.
“I’d like that.”
“See you, then.” Evvy gathered up her skirts, took her basket, and left, hurrying away from the trees, which seemed to reach for her. How changed her world was! Not only had she met a real fey, she had befriended one. And he wasn’t a monster at all. Still, she had to keep him a secret. The others wouldn’t believe her – they would think she was enchanted to lure unsuspecting food to him.
For the next few weeks, Evvy visited the fey when she had the time, bringing leftover food. (She had learned not to bring fruit after he admitted that he couldn’t chew it with his fangs.) She would slip into the woods when she wouldn’t be missed, usually afternoons. He would be there, usually writing in his fey notebook, which was like a small pane of glass in which you wrote vanishing words with an inkless pen. They would talk, mostly about the lives of their peoples. Evvy was intrigued by the tales of the fey’s fabulous society as well as their inscrutable and savage customs. The fey admired the goodwill of humanity and seemed genuinely sympathetic about the human condition. He talked about becoming a human rights activist when he returned to the city. And each time, the fey would read his newest addition to his poem, and Evvy would encourage him and tell him how wonderful it was. Evvy was in a constant state of looking forward to these visits that made everyday life seem so boring. The fey preoccupied her mind. She dearly wished that he were as smitten by her as she was by him.
This visiting worked, for a few weeks. But one afternoon as Evvy prepared to sneak out, her father stepped into the kitchen, filling the doorway. “I’ve noticed you’ve been going out a lot lately,” he said casually.
Evvy froze. “Yeah…” she said, trying to adopt his demeanor.
“Visiting a boy?” he asked, with a knowing nod.
“Yeah.” Relief flushed over Evvy. It was kinda true, wasn’t it?
Her father smiled. Then his face turned serious. “So why are you going into the woods?”
Evvy paled. “It’s just… there’s a spot we like to go. It’s not far in at all.”
“I don’t want you meeting with a boy who makes you go into the woods.”
“He’s not ‘making’ me do anything,” Evvy said, blushing furiously.
“Who are his parents? I’d like to speak with them.”
“He’s… not from around here.” Evvy looked down and away.
“Where is he from?”
“I don’t really know.”
“What’s his name?”
Evvy was silent.
“He has a name, doesn’t he?” Her father’s voice had as much fear as anger.
Evvy glared at the floor, turning deep red.
“He is a human boy, right, Evvy?” Her father’s voice shook.
“So what if he’s not,” Evvy mumbled.
“Evvy!” Fear, anger, astonishment, and pity.
“He’s a perfectly nice caring person! You bigots wouldn’t let him live here and now he’s stuck in the woods but-“
“Evvy, that’s no boy! That’s- that’s a monster!”
“NO!” she screamed. “He’s less of a monster than all you idiot-“
“Evvy! Evvy, stop.” Her father steeled himself and breathed deeply, giving her a chance to do so too. “Evvy, I’m your father, and I want you to be happy, but…” He sighed. “I can’t be angry at you, because anyone can be enchanted by a fey. But… I’m going to have to not let you go out anymore, for your own safety.”
“He didn’t enchant me,” Evvy muttered, but she knew there was no arguing with her father. She stormed upstairs, fuming. How could everyone be so blind, to think all fey were evil? Her fey friend was an artist, and meanwhile she was confined to the banality of this human village. Didn’t that say something about humanity? Maybe when the poet left, he would swoop in and carry her away, and she wouldn’t have to deal with other humans anymore. Right. Like that would ever happen. Well, her father could only keep her grounded for a few weeks, and hopefully the fey would still be there. Maybe she would see him again.
That night, Evvy was awakened by something flickering outside her window. She rolled over and peeked between the blinds. Lots of little orange lights… Fires. Torches. In the dim light, Evvy could make out men’s faces and the shine of rifles… A hunting party? At this hour? The deer wouldn’t be out, would they? So what were they-
Oh! Her fey! Evvy sat bolt upright. They were out to kill him! Probably as revenge for ‘enchanting’ her. He might have been able to hold his own against five unarmed men, but against twenty armed he had no chance without a hound. He was going to die. And it was Evvy’s fault, too. She should have stood up to her father, she should have made her visits less obvious, she shouldn’t have visited him so selfishly in the first place… Poor, sweet poet. She had to help him. But she was powerless up here! There was no way she would make it through the throng of hunters in time. What could she do? In desperation, she opened the window and screamed, “Poet! Run!”
The poet was awakened by the scream, but by the time he was fully roused, he couldn’t remember the words. But his keen wolfish nose (not cold or wet or leathery, but his nostrils were apostrophes) detected the smoke of the torches, and he knew he didn’t have much time. He doubted he could fight. He didn’t want to, anyway. But the only ways to run were deeper into the woods or back through the village…
There was one thing he could do, though. He didn’t know if they would help, but it was his last chance. From his cloak, he withdrew a flint and a tiny vial of coppery liquid. Using the flint he lit a fire with the bone pile at his feet – he hoped that would be enough of a sacrifice. On the fire, he poured the liquid, which fell in orbs like quicksilver. The fire flared up in bright cyan, and the air filled with the stench of mildew and sickly pork. In the flames, a tall figure took shape.
Lord Misfortune was an imposing figure, almost seven feet tall, clothed in a long flowing cloak. Though he had the bony, bent body of a fey, his face was human. He looked down at the poet with doleful human eyes, through thick spectacles. “Need some bad luck?” he drawled.
“Thank you for heeding me, my lord. There’s a mob of humans out to kill me. If you would be so kind as to assist me in defending myself, sir, I would be eternally grateful.”
The spectre stared at the poet, then shrugged. “Killing humans is my wife’s job.” Before the poet could object, the vision vanished.
“Eros! Summons for you!” he heard a muffled voice call from the flames.
“Coming, Thanatos.” The fire flared up again to display Lady Chaos. Her face was a fey’s, with a long feral snout, but her body was unmistakably that of a human woman, clothed only in two patchworked and sequined rags. “So,” she said, grinning down at the poet, “I here there’s murdering to be done.”
“No, my lady, I don’t want to kill the humans,” he apologized. “I just want them to leave me alone.”
The goddess wrinkled her long nose. “You’re a tough customer. I’ll see what I can do.” She chewed a knuckle in thought. “Here. Get me a green bough.” The poet hurried over to a young tree and broke off a branch. Sap oozed from the wound and the tree writhed. “Now, hold it and your hand in the flames.” The poet obliged, yelping in surprise when he touched the fire. “Of course it hurts, fool! It’s fire!” The poet grimaced and looked away. The pain died down and he looked back at his hand to find that he now wore a gauntlet of green wood. Blue veins laced through it in the positions of nerves. So this must be his boon. “Thank you, my lady,” said the poet. “What does it do?”
“It’s enchanted with the taint of the forest, dearie,” she purred. “Here, you’ve got a chance to try it out.” The fire flared up, obscuring her, and then died. The poet looked behind him to see the first of the torches flickering behind the branches. He raised his gloved hand and sparks flew.
The next morning, it was bizarrely quiet in town. All Evvy heard were the sounds of the animals of the forest. She looked out her window and saw a few women going about their daily business, but not a man in sight. The town was half waiting, half mournful.
Evvy dressed and went downstairs. Her mother sat by the window, looking out. “What happened?” Evvy asked.
“The hunting party hasn’t returned yet,” said her mother, without turning her head.
Evvy stepped out the door and moved through the silent village to the forest. No one there tried to stop her. The forest creatures were out in abundance, though. Deer and snakes and hawks all milled around her, not fearing her presence, looking at her with intelligent eyes. Evvy shivered at their strange gazes and moved on.
The fey was in his clearing as usual, just sitting there. His expression was always hard to read, but today his silver eyes were completely blank. Lost in thought, or empty-minded? “Are you all right?” Evvy asked. “Where is everyone?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” he said. “And I suppose everyone is off burrowing, or grazing, or climbing, or other animal things.” He smiled weakly. Evvy furrowed her brow, trying to figure out if he was slurring humans, which was unlike him.
The forest watched her with many pairs of eyes.
“Of course,” he continued, “I don’t know if they’re quite used to being animals yet, or if they ever will be, but I’m sure they’ll learn to enjoy themselves…”
What? “You turned them all into animals?” cried Evvy. It was ridiculous, but this was an enchanted forest, and he was a fey. Anything could happen. Evvy stared at the creatures flittering through the woods all around her. No, they weren’t normal animals, there was a human intelligence in their movements. Evvy thought she could recognize a few transformed faces as they glanced at her before disappearing into the foliage. Dear gods, it was true…
The poet looked distraught. “It wasn’t my idea. I prayed to the gods for help, and they gave me this.” He raised his right hand, which wore a green glove.
“I can’t believe you.”
“I didn’t kill them, Evvy,” the poet soothed.
“You might as well have,” she said, appalled, conscious of the small spectators. “They’re gone to everyone now.”
“They’ll find new lives…”
“And what about the survivors?” asked Evvy, rage building along with her horror. “The women and children can’t survive all on their own. Our village is going to collapse.”
“I did what I had to, Evvy,” said the fey, becoming sullen and a little frightening. “I was fighting for my life. I never wanted this.”
“But…” Evvy struggled. “But… this is so awful…”
“They were all animals anyway,” the fey growled, baring his teeth. “They were human. There’s nothing that separated them from the miserable mundane creatures they are now.” His voice was nearly a roar. Evvy could see nothing of a person in that face. She shied away.
The fey blinked and looked ashamed. The fire went out of him, and he seemed to sag. “I’m sorry, Evvy. For everything. I really do care for you.” He extended a comforting arm, but even Evvy would not willingly embrace a fey. He looked at her and bit his lip. “You don’t have to stay here, you know. You can come with me to the city. I’ve almost finished my poem. I can pretend you’re my pet, but you won’t have to live that way. You’d be more like… a wife, or something.”
Could fey even love? Evvy had hoped that was the case just a little while ago, but she had never heard of it happening. She had heard that fey had no interest in human women but a peculiar taste for human men. Evvy shuddered. “I’m staying here,” she said, turning away from the fey.
“Evvy, you always told me how much you hated this place,” the poet said softly. “How you wanted to escape to our life. How can you throw this chance away? You can’t really want to waste your life wasting away here, when you can reach so much more so easily. You’ve got a lot of life to live, Evvy.”
Evvy looked back at him. He smiled a little at her, just a glimmer of teeth. She looked toward her town, and many small glittering eyes looked at her from the trees. Evvy suppressed a sob, then turned and took the fey’s hand.