It all began with dandelions. Yrisa, I remembered vaguely, was the name of the girl who suddenly stood there at the bar, offering me a handful of the yellow flowers. I didn’t get up from my stool behind the counter; obviously she was not here to buy anything.
She extended the dandelions as though I were supposed to just take them. I frowned; their scent tinged the stale air with an intrusive freshness, and they were too bright for this gloomy room–as was she with her cheeks flushing and her fair, braided hair like a ray of light spilling over her shoulder and chest. Her dress was the only thing about her not out of place, a tattered brown thing.
“What am I to do with those?” I asked, furtively closing the little book in which I kept the accounts meant for my eyes only. Recently dandelions seemed to turn up everywhere, in people’s buttonholes, in windows, and in pots at doorsteps.
There was something fishy about it.
“Brighten up the place, Ash!”
I blinked. “It’s my uncle’s inn, you know. And I’m sure he doesn’t like flowers.” I wasn’t sure, really. But what was the point in decorating a shabby inn with dandelions?
And how did she know my name, anyway? We had never spoken, and I wasn’t prone, like she was, to cause trouble where ever I went. No, I thought myself rather an expert at not getting noticed. The son of a long-lost tinker, living with my uncle and tending his very unnoticeable inn. Minding my own business, above all. And looking like nobody, with my straw coloured hair and worn greyish clothes. Why would anyone notice?
But it seemed Yrisa had. She darted an eye at the only customer–Roland, a regular, who lay snoring at a table at the far end of the room, his head next to a tankard of ale. Then she let her hand and the flowers drop to the counter, leaned a little forward and gazed intently into my eyes, whispering, “They aren’t just to make the place pretty. They’re a symbol.” She drew breath soundlessly. “Of our resistance. You too have lost, I know. We have to make this town a better place. We have to end Eurig’s reign. And if you’ll–”
“I won’t!” I gasped, my blood growing icy. Didn’t she know Ifleflax, Eurig’s demon, could be listening, always, everywhere? Did she wish to die? “Don’t say such things. Take your dandelions and leave me alone.” I was at my feet, gesturing towards the door a little more wildly than I had meant to.
“You’re just like they said. Only looking out for yourself.” She straightened.
“And you’re even more foolish than I thought,” I told her back as she strode out. The door opened; the brass bells at the top of it jangled. The door closed. Then Roland’s occasional snoring was the only sound.
Yrisa had always been a troublemaker. Ever since her mother had been chosen for the sacrifice, that is. It was what it was; once a year someone had to bring them the gold, or they would come and take it themselves–despite Ifleflax’s wards, protecting this town from most of the magical menaces of the land. And they would take whatever lives they chose as well. Better to lose just one. That’s what Eurig said, at least. And back then I believed him.
Eurig appointed who was to take the gold to Feyvale. No one ever returned. There was no use making a fuss about it; it had to be someone. Most understood this. My own mother had been chosen, I’ve been told, though I was too young to remember. And when I was old enough to understand, I accepted, like I was expected to. I never knew her anyway. But Yrisa made such a scene when her mother went away. Her crying seemed to never end. Eurig turned the blind eye; she was just a child back then, and sometimes children act irrationally, even Eurig knew; he usually let the children be. But she was older now, not really a child anymore. If he learned what she was saying still, death would find her in the form of his silent, soft stepping lady demon as swiftly as shadow melting before flame.
She had dropped a dandelion. I gave a start as I noticed. It was lying there on the floor close to the door, as innocent as a splotch of yellow blood on a stem. A symbol, she had said. I would have no part in that–if she wanted to drag someone down with her, let it be someone else. I hurried to it, picked it up, and threw it out the door. It was safely lost in the shadows of the gutter. A drift of cool air, smelling like everything else that had been lost in the gutter, went in, and I gulped it down, finding I had been holding my breath. I breathed out slowly, pulled the door closed. Brass bells jangled and silenced, and I went back to the counter. Now, where was I?
With one finger I gingerly stroked the worn paper cover of the book. It was yellow and stained and slightly sticky, and creased like an ancient map. Roland grunted and shifted, and I paused. But he didn’t lift his head from the table nor opened his eyes; I returned my attention to the book, flicked through it.
My last entry was no more than a quarter in. The columns of numbers ended abruptly where I had been interrupted by Yrisa. I grabbed my pen and finished what I had been about to write. 78 silver and 30 copper coins. The entire amount of six years savings. Not nearly enough for half a ticket.
If I ever were to get out of here, I would have to give my uncle even less of the money we earned. When Eurig’s dues were paid, there wasn’t much to spare if we were to eat. And that which was didn’t all belong to my uncle. Though it was his inn, I did all the work; he was rarely even around. It was only fair I took some for myself once in awhile. It would be fair to take even more. I bit the end of my pen. It wasn’t stealing, not when I worked for it. And my uncle couldn’t truly need it.
I closed the book, bent and reached under the counter, my fingers skimming across rough and cracked wood; there was the loose board and the secret opening and the box. And inside it I glimpsed, as I put the book back in, silver and copper, glittering faintly, like the marble towers of Bastral city did, in the sunlight, in my father’s stories; like the shimmering surface of the portal that would take me there. Once I had saved enough for a ticket to get through.
It was the only way off this rainy island.
“Don’t we have any money?” my uncle panted, leaning his bulk against the counter. Had he been running to get here? It seemed unlikely. But on the other hand his usually pallid face did seem flushed.
I simply shook my head.
His lower lip quivered, and his eyes flitted nervously about the room, found Roland and stopped. “What about him. Didn’t he buy anything?”
“Well,” I said irritably; I couldn’t deny that. “I suppose we do have two copper coins. Will that do?”
“No,” he sighed. “Not at all.” He slumped down on a chair at a nearby table, rubbed his balding head. “I don’t stand a chance. I never did. Do we have anything worth selling?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think so.”
“I never had a chance. Not with that cozy inn sitting there on the hilltop so close to the portal.” He grimaced. “Every single hunter coming through can’t help but catch sight of it; all spend their gold there. And all I get is the local ragtags.”
Every hunter seemed to want to drink before a hunt. To calm their nerves, I suppose. And of course they went to the first inn they saw, especially when it was also the best in town. But nothing could be done about it, and I’d heard it too many times before, so I didn’t respond. And I knew what was coming next.
“And my brother’s left-behind ragtag kid to feed.”
“I could buy another ale, if that’ll help.” It was Roland’s voice, slurry, and followed by a couple of bumps as he actually got to his feet and began staggering towards the counter.
My uncle opened his mouth as though he were about to speak. Then Roland, who passed him in just that instant, was covered in a spray of dark red blood.
And my uncle fell over, and from a gash across his throat poured blood, and my numb mind could grasp no other thought in that moment than to simply wonder how one man, just one man, could contain so much of it.
There seemed to be no sounds, no movement. In a blast, it all returned; my wild heartbeat, my staggering breath, my own blood rushing like a roaring river. Roland whimpering and cowering in a corner. And Ifleflax, Eurig’s lady demon, stepping towards me.
I didn’t know her by her looks; the last time I’d seen her she had been lithe and blonde. Now she was a curvaceous redhead dressed in tight black silk. Whatever her master desired at the moment, I suppose, but always beautiful, like no human could ever be.
I backed away, bumped into the shelf on the wall behind me. A bottle of liqueur swayed and after two short breaths it fell, shattered on the floor boards. A sharp smell filled the air, and I could hardly breathe it, felt my throat tighten as I tried. And Ifleflax kept coming closer, moving languidly; for me there could be no escape. Red was dripping from one of her long pointed fingernails, glistening like her eyes. But not a single splash of blood had stained her pale skin.
How she moved past the counter I cannot say. All I know is one moment she was standing on the other side, and the next she was right in front of me.
“Did you know,” she said. Her voice was dark and soft and slow and lingered like a shadow.
“Did you know,” she repeated, “all he needed was 52 silver coins. That was the last of his debts to my master. 52 silver coins could have saved him. But time is up.” She looked at me, not reproachfully, I think at least, but there was a moment when her eyes gleamed in a way I thought displayed some emotion.
“I–I didn’t know,” I croaked, somehow managing to draw enough breath through my tightened throat to form comprehensible words. He had never told me he owed Eurig money.
Then the bells jangled, and Eurig stood in the door. He was a rather small man if you looked closely. But I didn’t, and if you didn’t there was something about his bearing that took up more space than should have been possible. And to me he seemed to fill the whole doorway. He wore a fur trimmed cloak, a sword at his belt, and an inscrutable expression on his bearded face.
The creaking of his leather boots was the only sound as he stepped inside. Ifleflax was at his side a few heartbeats later. I felt the air stir as she moved from me, and I breathed out in sheer wonder I was still alive.
Eurig halted next to the bloody mess that had been my uncle, sprawled on the floor, and I repeated, my voice hoarse: “I didn’t know.”
Eurig looked at me then, an eyebrow raised; he didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about, or he simply didn’t care. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword. Not as though he were about to draw it, but in a relaxed manner. On his finger gleamed the ruby ring he always wore, like yet another drop of blood.
“This place is mine, now. Debt was left unpaid, and due to the terms of our agreement all his belongings befalls me. If you’re the heir, relinquish your claims.”
“I–I relinquish my claims.”
“Good. You can stay then. Just remember every single coin earned here from this moment belongs to me.”
And that was it. Or could have been it. But people had gathered outside–most with dandelions in their buttonholes–and curious eyes peered in. And a pair of them was grey and set in the face of the girl named Yrisa. She was still holding her bundle of dandelions. I don’t know if it was them that inspired her foolish boldness, but she took a long stride forward which brought her through the door. There she took a stand, tossed a lock of hair that had escaped her braid back from her face, and said, “You’re a truly small man. Ash had no other family. What have you left him with now?”
Eurig turned, expressions of anger and wonder shifting across his face like ripples across still water, then settling into a wry smile. “His life,” he breathed.
“Well, still, you didn’t have to kill his uncle! He’s all alone now–”
“No, no I’m not complaining, everything’s fine–” I interjected. But no one seemed to be listening to me.
Eurig stepped towards her, slowly. “Perhaps I didn’t have to. But I chose to. Do you question me?” His hand alternately eased and tightened its grasp on the sword hilt.
Yrisa backed up a step. “It’s not just I who question you. We’re many who’ve had enough, and you can’t kill us all–” She raised her chin, but her voice was becoming high-pitched, and the words spilled from her mouth too fast, now. “You’ll have no one to rule then. We won’t take it any longer–”
“We, you say. Who are we? I see you standing there all alone.”
“I–” she looked over her shoulder. The street outside was empty now. She looked back at Eurig, her eyes suddenly wide. You could actually see the lump move in her throat as she swallowed.
“Since you don’t like the way I run my town, I suggest you leave it. Now,” Eurig said in a low, menacing voice. He turned abruptly to look at me. “And you too, boy. You can keep each other company so you won’t be all alone.” He grimaced.
Yrisa and I made various incoherent protests.
Eurig raised his hand and his voice: “I don’t want to hear another word about it! You’re both banned, and if Ifleflax ever scents you here again, you die.”
So I found myself in the company of Yrisa on the plains outside the town. We had been walking for a while in silence. Each time I gazed back, the wards, stone towers though they were, seemed more like small blunt teeth encircling a miniature of the world I’d known. The fields and the sheep were tiny toys. The town was really no more than a ragged outline under the scudding clouds, but I could still see the portal clearly, like a jewel at the eastern edge of town, flaring brightly once in awhile as someone–most likely a hunter–made it through. My throat felt sore each time I saw it; it would never be me. My 78 silver and 30 copper coins were left behind. And they weren’t enough, anyway. It had all been for nothing. I flushed though I shivered in the cold wind; 52 of them could have saved my uncle. He had never been a kind man. But he had taken me in, and he shouldn’t have died like that. And I could have saved him. Now I had nothing.
To our left was the sea. Dunes covered with lyme grass blocked the view, but the distant cries of seagulls could be heard once in awhile, and the air was briny. Somewhere along the shores were scattered small fishing villages, where people lived hard and short lives; the treacherous Bufindolon Sea was infamous and always hungry. Which was also the reason no one ever attempted to travel by ship to the far-off mainland. We hadn’t discussed it, but I think we both knew our only hope was one of those villages would take us in. If we could make it that far. The land outside the wards held its own perils.
One of them lay within the green mist we could glimpse on the horizon to our right. Feyvale. Their realm.
I did my best not to look at Yrisa; her meddling had brought me here, and I really didn’t want to talk to her. But eventually she spoke anyway.
“You know, Ash, I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
I turned to look at her, throwing my hands. “Well, what did you think would happen? Questioning Eurig! How could you possibly think that could end well? I’m surprised he didn’t kill you.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be just me! We were many. It could have been the turning point. It should have been. They had all promised; how was I to know when it all came down they would be such cowards?”
“How were you to know they wouldn’t be?”
She snorted. “You would know wouldn’t you; it takes one to know one, after all.”
“You got what you wanted anyway; you’re free of Eurig. Or are you just realising it wasn’t that bad? He kept us safe after all.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Did he?”
I saw my uncle. The pool of blood. I shook my head, to get rid of the image, but it didn’t do any good, and from the smug smile on Yrisa’s face she seemed to think it meant I agreed with her, after all. And for some reason I found that more annoying than the cold and the fact that the rest of my life would most likely be even more miserable than the first part had been. Because of her. But I couldn’t come up with anything to say to wipe that smile away.
Above, a massive grey cloud drifted by, and the world grew darker, colder. The wind gusted.
“We better get moving,” I simply said, and then we walked on, in silence. None of us felt like being out here when night fell. There was about half a day’s travel to the nearest village, and we had set out in the late afternoon. There was no time to waste.
We followed an indistinct path winding through the high grass. Once we saw a distant rider; a hunter, I guessed, making his way from Feyvale back to the town at a leisurely pace. He would have bags filled with the crystallised souls of the Fey he’d managed to capture. The fabric of magic. No human wizard could cast spells without them, and they were worth a fortune. The unfairness of it all was that if you hadn’t got money to back you, there was no getting into the business. The charms and talismans needed to keep you relatively safe when walking amongst the Fey, the gold needed to lure them and entrap them…No simple son of a tinker could ever hope to get a share of the riches thus extracted from Feyvale. Not that I had ever considered it before; I didn’t wish to become another one lost in the cold, wet world of the Fey. But now, for a moment, I found myself contemplating if there could be a way.
As though to put the thought out of my mind, Yrisa froze. I followed her gaze: against the grey sky was a dark, blurry shape. They say miscast spells sometimes take on a life of their own, become living tears in reality yearning to absorb sentient life. Was that what it was, the dark shape? Was it heading our way? I glanced at Yrisa; she was thinking the same, it seemed–her face was pale, frowning, and her eyes fixed on the shape.
Then it went away. Just like that. If it had been heading towards us at all, it was now suddenly speeding in the opposite direction, and no more than a few heartbeats went by before it ascended above the clouds and was lost from sight.
I breathed out slowly, and Yrisa gave a little laugh of relief. “Well, let’s get moving.”
I kept silent, not wanting to agree with her on anything. But she was right, of course, and as she began walking again so did I.
“You’re going the wrong way,” a voice said from close behind us.
I gave a start and turned. Roland, my most regular customer, stood there, a bulging sack on his shoulder. In a flash I saw the red blood he had been covered in last I saw him. My uncle’s blood. But he had washed it off it seemed, somehow managing to do so without making his tattered clothes or his lank, grimy hair seem any cleaner than usual.
“Roland! What are you doing here? How did you find us?” I had been gazing back at the town and the portal so many times, I was sure I would have noticed if anybody was following us. Nevertheless, here he was. Of all people. And he seemed sober, which was the strangest part of it all.
He didn’t answer my question. “That is, Yrisa is going the wrong way. You can continue, if you like,” he said, looking at me with an oddly steady gaze, his voice darker, softer than I remembered it.
Yrisa frowned. “And where was I supposed to be going, if you don’t mind telling me?”
“To Feyvale, with me.”
It was so absurd for a moment we both just gawked at him without knowing what to say.
“And why would I do that?” Yrisa finally said.
“Because that’s where I am going.”
“And I would want to follow you because…?”
“Your mother said so. She asked me to keep you safe until you found a new home, and I can’t do that unless you come with me; I have to go to Feyvale before anything.”
“My mother…” Yrisa pursed her lips. “That’s not funny!”
Roland tilted his head and looked at her wonderingly. “I never said it was.”
Yrisa snorted. “My mother has been gone for years, and I’m sure she never…”
Yrisa’s voice grew louder, and Roland shifted the sack to his other shoulder. Something inside it made a jingling sound. But before I could wonder about it, something else caught my attention: As his hand moved, I saw a golden ring with a ruby eye, red like blood, on his finger. It was Eurig’s ring, or one completely identical.
Yrisa saw it too. She paused, arched her eyebrows. “Did you kill Eurig?” she asked in a low, incredulous voice.
“I did not.”
“Then how did you get that ring?”
“Your mother gave it to me.”
Yrisa drew breath, let it out slowly. “You’re mad.”
“No. I’m not.”
“Come, Ash. I’m not going to listen to any more of that.” Yrisa turned.
“Wait,” I said. Roland might be mad, though I’d never heard his voice sound so clear before. But that ring on his finger intrigued me, and so did whatever was in that sack of his. The way it had jingled as he moved it, it did sound almost like…
“What do you have in your sack, Roland?” There could be no harm in asking.
“Gold,” Roland said in his strangely calm voice. And then he set the sack down and unwound the string closing it. Coins of gold brimmed within it.
Yrisa turned, slowly, stared at the gold wide eyed, as did I. My heart beat a little faster.
“And Eurig gave it to you. You are to take it to Feyvale, for the annual sacrifice,” I said. It wasn’t that time of the year, but it was the only explanation.
“No. I took it from Eurig myself. I’m not using it to pay off his debt. I’m using it for myself, to pay the Fey for a wish of my own.”
“You took it from Eurig? Tell me, is he dead, then?” Yrisa said eagerly.
“You stole it, then,” I whispered, a cold shiver running down my spine. I couldn’t imagine how he’d managed, nor did it really matter; the result would be the same, regardless: “He’ll be sending riders–and worse–to get it back.”
Roland smiled. Then he looked at Yrisa, and said, “If you come with me, I’ll see that you’re safe like I promised.”
Yrisa bit her lip, her eyes on the sack of gold. “A wish…” Then she lifted her gaze to meet Roland’s as though she were actually considering coming with him.
I saw it too, the promises shimmering in that shiny, yellow metal. A portal, and marble towers on the other side. That might become true, if I could get my hands on the gold, return to town and buy my ticket unnoticed by Eurig. Unlikely, but not as unlikely as going to Feyvale and hope to live. I’d heard the stories before; how gold could buy a wish from them. But they were just stories, and people who believed them were lost. I shook my head and backed up a step. Roland winced, a sudden look of misery in his features.
“What?” I asked, puzzled.
He narrowed his eyes. “You. Should step more carefully.” His voice was icy, slow, like a creek about to freeze over.
“Why?” I stepped back and peered at the ground where I just stood. There was nothing there except grass, a little stone.
And what seemed to be a dead, yellow winged butterfly. A sombre expression still on his face, Roland knelt beside it, picked it up gingerly.
“It’s just a butterfly,” I said.
“No living thing is “just”,” he murmured. And then he added, softly, “It’s not too late.”
He blew at it. A moment passed. Then the butterfly tentatively moved its wings. And then it fluttered off, like a yellow leaf caught in the wind.
Was it magic? He had spoken no spell, used no Fey dust. Perhaps I had been mistaken, thinking it dead. But what puzzled me most was why Roland would care about such an insignificant creature.
Roland went back to his sack and with one fluid motion closed it and shouldered it again. “I hope you do choose to come. Otherwise I might not be able to keep my promise,” he said to Yrisa. Then he turned and began walking towards Feyvale. Once, he looked back, an inscrutable expression in his eyes. Like shifting shadows. I felt a cold shiver down my spine.
“Did you see that?” Yrisa whispered. Her eyes were fixed on Roland and sparkling so; she wasn’t talking about that eerie look.
I raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t find that show a bit too strange?”
“Strange, yes, but wonderfully so! Have you ever seen, ever, anyone caring about such a small creature as a butterfly? He must be a truly good man.”
“Or mad, like you said to begin with.”
“How can you say that? Didn’t you see what he did? He must be good, and whatever wish he means to make will benefit us all. Perhaps he wants me to come along to help him, guide him, to make the best possible wish. I too care about the world. Don’t you see?”
But I didn’t see. In fact, another option occurred to me: “Or perhaps you are merely the human sacrifice seeming to be necessary, if Eurig’s way of losing people along with the gold is any guideline.”
“How can you say that? Didn’t you see? The butterfly!” Yrisa’s hands chopped the air, and red spots appeared on her cheeks. Then she took a deep breath, and sighed, “You’re hopeless.”
And then she actually set after Roland.
I watched them for a while, becoming smaller. A lone beam of sunlight made the strands of Yrisa’s hair that had escaped her braid seem like wispy threads of gold. Then the sun went back in hiding, and a chill wind gusted.
She was so naive! But it wasn’t my problem. It wasn’t. But the gold…I clenched my jaw. One thing was certain: I would never see another coin of gold in my life if I went to a fishing village. I would never see the marble towers of Bastral City.
How could I not follow?
“Shouldn’t we set camp for tonight?” Yrisa said.
We were standing on a hilltop. It was the only one for miles. Around it we could see the plains slowly being swallowed by shadows. In front of us, though, just down the hill, the green mists of Feyvale seemed faintly glowing, stretching out like the sea. And to dive into it at night…I shivered, quickly agreed with Yrisa.
Roland turned. There was a puzzled look in his eyes, but it quickly faded. “Yes. It is time for sleep. We will continue tomorrow.”
We lit no fire; out here we wouldn’t want to draw attention. Yrisa and I drew our cloaks tighter and curled up on the ground a little apart. And Roland moved to the edge of the hilltop, where he sat, legs crossed, back to us, a dark shape watching the dusk growing deeper.
The grass was wet with dew, the ground hard and cold. And I couldn’t sleep.
“You needn’t worry. Roland is keeping watch; he’ll keep us safe,” Yrisa said, her voice faint and dreamy.
I just made a muffled sound she could interpret any way she liked. I didn’t share her faith in Roland, not in the least; even if he were a good man, like she had decided, I couldn’t see how him saving a butterfly had anything to do with his ability to protect us from what lived out here. But I knew it was no use to tell her so. No, it had been a mistake to follow them, I should have continued on my own. But it was too late; I wouldn’t stand a better chance blundering about in the dark by myself. All I could do was pray for once I’d have some luck, and nothing too mean would notice us here.
Yrisa was silent; drifted off to sleep, I thought enviously. I watched the darkening sky. The wind had stilled somewhat, and the torn clouds slid slowly by, reminding me of the shapes of monsters.
Now and then, they let silvery moonlight through, and I could see strands of mist rising like thin fingers from Feyvale. There was silence except when some bird called out.
And all the time, Roland sat unmoving, his back straight. Did he not tire? Perhaps he could sleep, frozen like that? I didn’t really believe it, thinking of how he used to lie drooling and snoring across a table. But that was when he was drunk. And now, for some strange reason, he was sober. Perhaps this was the first time I saw him as he truly was? And if so, and if he was somehow asleep, he might not notice if I snatched the sack beside him. And then I could be out of here, truly out of here; buy my ticket and leave this island.
If I could make it on the plains in the darkness on my own, and slip into town unnoticed by Eurig. I smiled wryly. It wasn’t likely. I almost gave up on the idea. But what other hopes did I have? I had been quietly waiting all my life. And here was my chance. Wasn’t that why I had come along in the first place? Though slim, I couldn’t let it slip away. For once I would actually do something. My heart began hammering. I held my breath, suddenly afraid to make the slightest noise. And then, slowly, I got to my feet.
“What are you doing?” Yrisa said.
I flinched; the sound of her voice, though low, was like glass shattering in the quiet of the night.
I cursed under my breath, and answered, “Nothing.”
She sat, gazing up at me, eyes reflecting the moonlight. The rest of her face was shadowy, but some of the shadows were deeper, gathered in what I believe was a frown.
“You’re not about to steal the gold and run away?”
“Of course not,” I muttered.
“Good, cause if you were, I would warn him. I wouldn’t let you ruin this.”
“Of course.” I slumped down again, and my heart dropped, became the usual quiet lump in my chest. I rested my head in my hand, carefully avoiding looking at Yrisa.
“I was just stretching my legs,” I said hoarsely.
For a while none of us spoke. Then Yrisa whispered, “I know what you think of me.”
Furtively, I glanced in her direction. Still her expression was inscrutable, lost in shadows.
“You think I’m a meddler, that I’m self-righteous, and constantly making things worse. And sometimes I am. Like when I managed to get us both banished.”
I didn’t answer, but she was right.
“I didn’t mean for that to happen. And it shouldn’t have, if people had just… The thing is I can’t just simply pretend not to hear, not to see. Like everyone does.” She took a deep breath. “Like they did when my mother went away. Nobody looked at her. Nobody looked at me. There were people all around, but no one saw. I remember thinking, what if they all said, stop, what if they all said, enough, what would Eurig do then? Kill everyone? I don’t think so; he would have no one to rule, then. But no one said anything. I was looking at swaths of blank faces, averted eyes. And there was so much silence, I was choking on it. I promised myself, I would never, ever pretend not to see, keep silent when words need to be spoken. That’s all I can do. I can’t change everyone, but I can do what I think is right, and perhaps one day it’ll make a difference. I’m sorry, if I sometimes–”
“That’s all right,” I heard myself say. I didn’t mean it. But there was such a sad note in her voice. She was very brave, I had to admit. But at the same time so…stupid. Perhaps the first could not exist without the second. But that didn’t make it all right. But it didn’t make it all right either to make her feel sad about it now.
“What would you do anyway if you managed to get away with that gold?”
I felt the cold, dark night wrap itself around me like a heavy cloak. “I would have escaped,” I whispered after a while.
“Bought a ticket and escaped through the portal, to Bastral city, to a better life. I’ve been saving for that all my life.”
“What makes you think things are better there?”
I started. I had actually forgotten she was listening, that she had been the one asking the question. But I answered anyway.
“They must be. My father went there. If it wasn’t great, he wouldn’t have forgotten all about me. He would have come back.” I didn’t remember him very well, but what I remember were smiles and laughs and stories of magic and Bastral city, and he wouldn’t have left me behind for that place if it was anything less than wonderful. And perhaps I could find him there.
“You should understand. It’s just another way of trying to make things better,” I added.
She thought about that for a moment. And then, with her usual ruthless honesty, said, “Not the same. That’s just running away.”
“And what’s wrong with that? I never wanted to be here with you, and I never wanted to be there, in the inn with my uncle, I would never have chosen that if I had any say, not in a million years. What’s wrong with running away from something you didn’t want in the first place?”
“I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying it’s not the same as making things better.” She paused, then added lightly, “You could have smiled once in awhile. Just a little thing like that would have made the inn better; from what I heard most people were actually kind of scared of you.”
Scared? Nonsense. She knew nothing about anything! And what right did she have to judge me? How had she and all her words ever made anything better? I scowled at her, though I knew there was no point in the dark, then turned my back and lay down again, determined to end this useless conversation.
“I wasn’t lying when I said I brought the flowers to brighten up the place.”
I gritted my teeth and kept silent. As did Roland. He hadn’t moved an inch. As though he hadn’t heard a word we’d said. Right.
Yrisa didn’t speak again, and the night went on with its sounds and its silences and its damp chilliness, and it seemed to never end.
“Riders,” a voice hissed. A hand touched me lightly.
I blinked, bewilderedly registering the grey dawn light and for a moment not realising where I was, emerging from the hazes of deep sleep as I was–though how I managed to get to that state is still beyond me.
“We must move.”
I recognised the voice, dark and soft, like shadows slowly resolving into a familiar shape. It was Roland’s. And then I remembered it all. I sat abruptly. Yrisa was already on her feet. I half expected Eurig’s men–or Ifleflax–to lunge at us the next instant, but they weren’t that close, it seemed, though close enough for the sound of hoofbeats to be heard.
Dazedly, I followed Yrisa and Roland. Downhill we ran, into green mist, and the ground became soggy, and I remember thinking I ought to turn around–but to what? To Eurig’s riders? What were the odds they would believe me when I claimed I’d had nothing to do with stealing Eurig’s gold? And then there were trees all around, gnarled things covered in vines, strands of green mist winding in between them–as did we as we made our way, following Roland’s lead, leaping from tussock to tussock and trying to keep free of the pools of still water in between.
I remember pausing, short of breath. There were no birds, no wind, no sounds other than the ones we made. The green mist made anything more than a few yards away seem spectral. I had no clue from which direction we’d entered.
I was already lost.
Roland halted. “We should be safe now.”
“Right,” I said through my teeth. I felt anything but safe, expecting every shadow to resolve into something far worse than Eurig’s riders.
“Good,” Yrisa said. Her voice was light, but her eyes darted about, and she kept fingering her braid; she was just as nervous as I was. It didn’t make anything better, of course, but I felt a little better just the same.
“This shouldn’t take long.” Roland smiled placidly, shifted the sack to his other shoulder, and then called out, “Show yourself! I’ve got gold and wish to trade!”
Nothing happened. Roland frowned, drew breath as though he meant to call out again, but before he could, Yrisa apparently remembered why she chose to come along:
“Shouldn’t we discuss what wish we ought to make?”
Roland looked at her bewilderedly. “No. I know what wish to make.”
Well, why don’t you tell me?” Yrisa straightened and took a step towards him. “I might have ideas to improve it.”
Roland hesitated. “I doubt that.”
“Try me. Besides, it’s not as though you can keep it a secret–we’re going to hear your wish anyway.”
“True.” Roland nodded. His gaze turned to some faraway point, as though he had forgotten about us. Yrisa and I exchanged a puzzled look. Just then he began:
“I want them to take it back forever, the wish they granted Eurig. I might be free for a moment, thanks to your mother, but if I leave this world now I’ll have no control over where this ring goes. It’ll find its way back to him. Such things always do. And then he’ll call me back, and it’ll all start again…” His voice took on a slightly husky quality, a note of emotion. “All the killing…”
The back of my neck prickled.
“Ifleflax…” I whispered, my mouth dry.
“Yes?” Ifleflax in the form of Roland said, and turned–his? her?–head to look at me. I’m gonna go with “his” since that was his actual form at the moment, and I have a feeling neither is true of Ifleflax’s real shape.
The seemingly innocent look in his eyes transfixed me. Could it be? Ifleflax just wanting to be free of Eurig, not wanting to kill at all, feeling the pain of the smallest butterfly? It must be true, I decided; if he had wanted to hurt us, he could have done so a thousand times over. But that didn’t explain why he had wanted to bring Yrisa here.
“You could have told us the truth,” Yrisa murmured.
Ifleflax’s eyes shifted to Yrisa. I breathed out. Yrisa took a little step backwards. Her hand was twining her braid again.
“We…we would have helped you. There was no need to tell us lies to get us here.” She paused, frowning. “Why did you want us here?”
“I took on this shape so you wouldn’t fear me. But I have told no lies,” Ifleflax said earnestly. “I promised your mother to keep you safe, in return for her bringing me this ring.”
Red spots appeared on Yrisa’s cheeks. “But she is dead!”
“She is not. She ate the food of the Fey, drank their water, and so she walks a different plane, now. She can only be seen by beings of magic. She can only interact with that which is magical. She has been watching you, though, for a long time, and when she saw the trouble you were in she asked me to keep you safe. My price was the ring that controls me. It is magical, of course, and so she was able to slip it off Eurig’s finger. And he didn’t even notice.”
“Is she here, right now?” Yrisa’s eyes darted about.
“But I can’t see her, or hear her, or touch her, cause I’m not magical. So to me she might as well be dead.” The corner of her mouth twisted wryly.
“Go on, then. Make your wish,” she said sourly, her hand waving dismissively.
Ifleflax tilted his head. There was a slightly puzzled look in his eyes. “You still haven’t told me: how do you think I can improve my wish?”
“You should take your time to think about it,” I interjected. “If…you’re tired of carrying the gold, I can carry it for you while you think.” It couldn’t be that easy, of course. But I had to try something; I was becoming fervently aware my chances of getting the gold would vanish the moment he turned it over to the Fey.
Yrisa shot me a contemptuous glance. I met her eyes, thinking she had no right to judge me, but I felt a knot in my stomach just the same.
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Ifleflax said.
Of course. But if my remark had accomplished nothing else, it had made Yrisa forget her disheartened mood. She began pacing. “You got one point, though, Ash. This should be considered carefully. So we can hurt Eurig the most. Why not simply wish him dead?”
“I wish no one dead.” Ifleflax eyes turned a little darker.
“I wish no one dead,” Ifleflax’s repeated, an icy edge to his voice.
Yrisa pursed her lips.
“This shouldn’t take long. They know me. They trust me.” Ifleflax frowned, and his eyes scanned the mist. “Perhaps we just need to move further in; perhaps the hunters have taken too many.” He began walking again. Yrisa and I exchanged an apprehensive look but followed. What other options did we have?
Suddenly Yrisa’s face brightened. “Is there enough gold for two wishes?”
“No,” Ifleflax stated, without looking back. “Show yourselves,” he shouted again the next moment.
Yrisa stared sullenly after him, and to me she said, “He is a bit selfish, don’t you think?”
I didn’t respond; it wasn’t an accusation I had any right to make. And I was beginning to think neither had she, the way her eyes were fixed on the sack on Ifleflax’s shoulder.
The air was getting warmer. Somewhere above all this green, the sun was shining; shafts of light made it through the mist and shimmered off the pools of water between the paths we walked, making everything seem blurred, like a half forgotten dream.
Ifleflax’s voice echoed again. No one answered. Something creaked faintly, and out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed movement, I was sure. But as I turned my head to look, there was nothing there but gnarled willows leaning over a murky lake as though regarding their own hazy reflections.
I was sweating, and the damp air was becoming harder to breathe. Cold water was soaking into my shoes, and my hair was plastering to my head.
“Show yourselves! I have gold!” Ifleflax halted by the lake shore. He shook the sack, dangling it in front of him, filling the air with the jingling sound of gold coins.
“Face it, they’re not here,” I muttered, wanting to be out of here more than anything, even more than the gold.
Ifleflax shouldered the sack again. His eyes were blank.
“I don’t understand…”
There should have been silence then. But there wasn’t: A gurgling sound rose and fell like the tunes of a distant flute.
Ifleflax smiled, turned his head. “Oh, but they are.” Then the smile faded to a grim frown, and he moved, the way only he can, so swiftly I didn’t really see him move at all. To my left Yrisa gasped; she was standing by a stream winding across the narrow path and flowing into the lake. Red apples were scattered along its banks. Her hands were grasped tightly by Ifleflax as though he had just pulled her to her feet. Water dripped from her fingers.
“Don’t drink,” Ifleflax said. “And don’t eat anything.”
The stream was clear like liquid air, not anything like the murky waters we’d passed so far. And its playful gurgling sounds made my mouth feel like dry sand. I was suddenly painfully aware I hadn’t had anything to drink since yesterday.
But the stream hadn’t been there a few moments ago, nor had the apples; if Ifleflax’s words weren’t warning enough, that fact ought to be.
“Alright, I won’t,” Yrisa said. “It’s just I’m so thirsty. I thought just a little sip–”
“One sip, and you’ll be lost.” Ifleflax slowly let go of her hands.
“Okay, I won’t.” She rubbed her right wrist and glanced furtively at the stream.
With a jerk of her head she was glaring up at Ifleflax again. “I still think, though, that you ought to make a different wish. Or at least think about it.”
“No,” Ifleflax said.
“No,” Ifleflax repeated aloofly, frowning. “Why are you hiding from me?” he murmured.
“Well, if they have any sense it’s because they think like I do that you ought to reconsider your wish.”
“Yrisa, let it go,” I interjected; I couldn’t stand listening to her anymore. Did she think she was so much better than everyone else? What gave her the right to judge people?
“Stay out of this, Ash.”
“No, you stay out of it,” I snapped. “What you said last night is true: you’re a meddler, and whatever good intentions you have doesn’t change the fact you’re only making things worse. So just don’t, for once. Let it go.”
“It is true,” Ifleflax added absentmindedly, still preoccupied with what he saw or didn’t see in between the trees and the green mist and the blurry shafts of sunlight.
Yrisa looked suddenly smaller. Her lips were pale, and her skin seemed sallow–though that might have been because of the greenish tinge everything got in this light. Her brow was glistening with sweat, and her hair was a tangled mess. I suppose she was feeling as miserable as I did, weary and hungry and thirsty and virtually out of hope. As I watched her usually lively eyes turn dull and drop to the ground, I regretted what I’d said. But there was no taking it back now.
Ifleflax began pacing again, muttering incomprehensibly. Suddenly, he halted by the edge of the lake, peering intently down. Something was making small splashing sounds and panicked chirps. Ifleflax knelt and extended a hand. “Here you go, little friend.”
Out of the water he fished a little drenched mouse. Gingerly, he set it down on the somewhat solid ground where we stood. It scuddled off, and Ifleflax got to his feet, drying his hand on his trousers and smiling.
A few heartbeats went by, and then, like bubbles in a boiling cauldron, appeared one, and then one more, and then one more of the little critters, until I completely lost count of the drowning, panic-struck mice splashing manically about in the lake, most so far out there was no way to reach them without entering the water.
“Oh no,” Ifleflax breathed hoarsely. His eyes moved rapidly; the mice in need of rescue were everywhere. “I must–so many…” He turned to face me. “Help me. Hold this while I go.”
And then the sack of gold was thrust into my arms, and I staggered backwards, nearly losing my balance under the weight of it. And Ifleflax was in the water, but the mouse he had meant to reach seemed to have drowned; he hesitated, but then went for the next, further out.
“Ifleflax, I don’t think you should–” I bit my tongue. Here I stood. With the gold. The last thing I should do was call back Ifleflax. I glanced at Yrisa. She looked as though she meant to say something, but when I met her gaze, she averted her eyes, pursed her lips, and folded her arms across her chest. I looked back at the lake. Ifleflax was already a blurred shape, nearly lost in the mist. Then I stopped paying attention to either of them; giggling and sniggering sounds rose all around.
“Have you wish? Have you wish to see someplace? Be someplace? Towers, perhaps, of marble-stone?” The voice was husky, the sound of distant wind. And the one who spoke, who must have been speaking, though I could see no mouth, was a small creature made of coloured light, of shadows, of leaves, of mist, hovering before me. I remember thinking that, but I can’t recall the image of it in my mind, can’t recall anything exact, just impressions–and the prickling sensation of every little hair on my body rising. The words, though, still stand chillingly clear in my mind.
“Give shiny gold, and you’ll be.” Those words echoed from all around.
This was it, my chance–why couldn’t I speak? Why couldn’t I just say, here’s your gold, now take me to Bastral city? My hands felt clammy, and sweat was trickling down my back. I’m not sure I was even breathing, in that moment. “Ifleflax,” I heard myself murmur.
“You worry about Demon?” sounded the husky voice. “It won’t do, this Demon’s wish. No, no, we made such nice ring, bring us gold every year in return, does the human. It won’t do to undo it; we can sell it to another. So much gold. We’ll have Demon saving mice–” The giggling returned. “Saving mice until it’s so fatigued we can take back ring. Or forever.” The giggling stopped abruptly. “Have you wish?” There was an edge to the voice, now, and the silence that followed seemed to be quivering somehow; they were awaiting my answer.
You’re not a hero, I told myself. You can’t save Ifleflax, or the town, or the world, but you can make things better for yourself. I clenched my jaw, wondering why I found this so hard. It was simple. I could have my dreams come true.
But something else was wrong: Yrisa wouldn’t let this pass without a word. Where was she? I turned in the direction where I’d last seen her. She was kneeling by the stream, an apple in her hand. She met my eyes.
“Why not? I have no one in this world, and you’ve made it perfectly clear I’m no good to the world. This way, at least I might be with my mother.”
“Don’t–I didn’t mean it!”
Yrisa looked down at the apple and turned it slowly. A pale wound in the bright red fruit became visible; she had already taken a bite. She gazed up at me. She was translucent, I realised, and slightly more so by the heartbeat.
“Don’t–make your wish instead!” It was too late, of course, I knew, but I couldn’t just stand there watching her turn to empty air without doing something, and the only thing I could think of was tossing her the gold.
The sack was too heavy, and it fell jangling to the ground, only a few feet from where I stood.
But Yrisa couldn’t reach out for it, even if it had made it farther; she was gone.
And in a flash of fluttering, shimmering lights a swarm of them was at the sack, buzzing and sniggering, and singing,
“Touch the ground, and it is ours,” over and over again. And then, abruptly, there was silence, and they were gone too. And so was the sack.
For a moment I stood dumbfounded, blinking at the empty spots that had been a girl named Yrisa and a sack of gold. I looked around; there was no sign of Ifleflax either. I was alone. Wearily, I rubbed my temples, feeling the beginning of a thumping headache.
“I would like to make my wish, now,” I told the air, my voice brittle in the silence.
There was no response.
“No one said anything about the gold not touching the ground!” I kicked at a lump of dirt and cursed under my breath. Everything was lost. “Will you at least show me the way out of here?”
“Human wants a way out.” The husky voice again, though none of them was in sight. “Can’t have that. You take so many of us, we take of you, when we can.”
Another stream of clear water appeared.
“I’m not gonna drink that!”
“Then wander about till you die. Bones are so pretty.”
I suppose the only reason they answered at all was to let me know there was no hope. I took a deep breath, tried to collect my thoughts. They would never let me find my way out of here. Ifleflax–I dismissed the thought; he was as lost as I was. They would lead him farther and farther away, and make sure the paths I found never crossed his.
Sooner or later a hunter would come–but no, it was the same, he would be no hope for any of us either; his charms and talismans would allow him to see through their illusions, to find his way out safely, while I…I would never even see him, and I would be left with their wrath over those he took, though I’d had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t fair. Suddenly it hit me. I knew what to do. I knew how to get out of Feyvale.
“What if I could stop them, the hunters, from entering your realm? What are your own lives worth?”
“That was when I made the bargain.” I pause.
The hunter stares at me, eyes wide. His weathered face has gone pale. From a leather cord around his neck hangs a phoenix feather burning brightly inside its crystalline encasement. There’s bits of bones from I know not which powerful creatures braided into his brown hair. But none of that will help him, he seems to have guessed.
He drank readily enough to begin with, merely grunted when I asked him news from the world, from Bastral city. He didn’t even speak when he wanted a refill, just looked at me meaningfully. I don’t think he minded when I began filling the silence with my own tale, though I don’t think he was paying particular attention to anything but his tankard either. But during the last part, his eyes shifted increasingly often to me. And now he sits, rigid on his stool, hands clenched on the counter.
“Bargain?” he whispers apprehensively. His face and chest seems divided into broad checks; I can glimpse the window at the far end of the room through him.
With a clean cloth, I wipe away a stain of ale on the counter, next to the jug of dandelions. “I offered them to build an inn, here, on top of the hill at the border of Feyvale. I knew no hunter could resist the opportunity to drink before a hunt.
They supply me with the water I mix with the ale. Just a tiny amount, so your talismans won’t alert you. It takes longer. But the result is the same.”
The hunter is barely more than a hazy outline now.
“In return, they restored Yrisa and released Ifleflax from their trap–” I hurriedly add. “Mind you, they wouldn’t destroy the ring, so he dares not leave this world. But apart from that, he’s free. And me–”
The hunter is gone. I finish anyway. “If I ever leave here, the bargain is off.”
For a while I just stare into the air. Then I clear away the hunter’s tankard. There are marks of sweat on the dark wood of the counter where his hands have rested. I wipe them away too.
I’m not unhappy. I built this place myself–with Ifleflax’s help; I know the story behind every crack in the wall, every nail and every board, and you won’t find any smudgy corners, or any repairs put off. I don’t find it hard to smile, though Bastral city remains a distant story world.
Ifleflax roams the world at day. And at night he stays here. To keep me safe, I think. We don’t talk much, but my sleep is untroubled, knowing he’s around.
Yrisa–I sigh like I often do when I think of Yrisa. She left for the town, and actually managed to lead a rebellion overthrowing Eurig. I suppose that is a good thing, but what troubles me is the letters she sometimes let a crow carry to me. They are becoming increasingly harsh, increasingly demanding. She wants me to steal Ifleflax’s ring, send it to her.
She needs him, she says, to bring the whole island under her protection.
I haven’t mentioned this to Ifleflax. And I have made no reply to Yrisa, hoping she will take the journey to talk to me in person instead. In case she does, I keep a bundle of dandelions in a jug on the counter. I imagine her seeing them will make her remember–I’m not exactly sure what. But they were important to her once, and if she remembers why, perhaps that harsh gleam there has to be in the eyes of someone who writes letters like she does now will soften.
Astrid S. Nielsen lives in Aalborg, Denmark, with her husband and a tank full of fish. Her stories have appeared in a previous issue of Abyss & Apex, Quantum Muse and Bewildering Stories. Visit her at www.astridnielsen.wordpress.com