The journey was almost over.
Ivor and Caeyu looked in the distance to Fàitois, the grandest dwelling of the Seelie Fae Queen Titania. Excitement was swelling Ivor’s chest and into his arms. Even from here, he could see at the center of Fàitois was Jera, the largest tree in this world and the next, her twisting trunk rising out to steel branches which each held different bunches of leaves in varying colors and shapes. Nuts and fruits fell daily to feed the folk that worshipped the land. Her roots waved in and out of the ground to form shelter above and curled below to make burrows. Legend had it Jera was born from lightning that struck a lonely spirit and that she burst from fresh dirt to form the seven rivers that fed her.
She wasn’t just awe inspiring for her beauty alone. Jera was also the most powerful natural source in all the Borealis, capable to perform miracles even the Fae had never conceived.
Or so Ivor’s instincts hoped.
Caeyu felt like chewing po leaves. They were finally here. They hadn’t been in a Fae dwelling in sometime. Wandering through the Aimless lands left her weary. But now? Now she’d take beasts over what might be ahead of them. The connection between her and Ivor was tightening around her neck and shoulders. He was confident, and she hoped he was right.
“Are you afraid?” she asked looking up at him.
“Not yet. Maybe tomorrow when the celebrations begin.”
“The folk song is in three suns?”
She pushed the black vines from her head behind her pointed ear. “What will you do, if this works?”
Ivor was quiet, as he often was, while the wind played with his thick blonde braid. He was covered in grime from boots to nose. The tattered cloak over his shoulders could no longer be identified as blue and his trousers desperately needed patched. She knew he’d never part from his cloak but everything else needed to be burned they were so far gone. At least his gloves were clean.
“I haven’t thought about it.”
Of course you haven’t, she thought.
Caeyu meekly smiled. “I’ll help, whatever you decide to do.” She hoped whatever it was, it would involve settling down. “Let’s hurry, we need to catch the last ferry.”
The seven rivers overflowed often, turning even the hill they stood on to slick mud. Ivor descended to the base in a smooth glide. Caeyu positioned her shell mask before she went down. The mud pulled them in. She was sunk half to her knees before Ivor stopped, still meters away from the water’s edge. She wondered how he was going to do on the ferry.
Her concern doubled when she saw they were going to be riding on something that was hardly a raft. Three other folk were already on board not including the satyr in patterned scarves that was steering. Two squating chaulk with bright blue veins and skulls over their heads dangled their bodies over the very end. And a centaur with a heavy robe stood perfectly in the center.
Ivor waded through the mud much slower than he had to, while Caeyu tried thinking of a way on without exposing her identity.
“High sun, let me help you both,” said the centaur. He jumped into the water and moved across the deep ground with easy. “My name is Crayben. Would you like to sit on my back for the ride? It’d be no trouble, no trouble at all, and I’m sure it will leave us all more space.”
Caeyu said yes before Ivor could say no. He’d never admit it but she knew they’d both feel better if they were on top of Crayben. Ivor lifted himself easily on the centaur’s back and helped Caeyu up. With no difficulty Crayben got back on the ferry and the satyr pushed off.
“I quite admire your braid," the centaur said to Ivor. "Would you do my hair like that? I’ve never been good at those, my Latima usually does them, but not as much with her pregnancy.”
Ivor started pulling out the chestnut tangles at the centaur’s ends but then dutifully began weaving his hair. It was slippery with his leather gloves, but they had time for him to do it right.
“Will you be keeping the colt?” the satyr asked casually.
“I’m coming to Fàitois to speak to some Fae about the birth. I bet there’s going to good ones, the queen’s court members even. They’ll want to be here for the folk dance.”
“Could always leave it to Jera. A strong boy could work the rivers well,” replied the satyr.
Crayben nodded. “If it’s a boy. A girl I’d rather leave with a Fae.”
Caeyu squinted at the horizon, trying to show her disinterest rather than disdain.
Ivor worked on Crayben’s hair, oblivious to the conversation.
The fairer worked hard in managing the river when it swelled. More rafts joined them from smaller offshoots as they got closer to the dwelling. They began passing makeshift structures not far from shore that were made in preparation for the folk that’d be traveling to the dwelling. Jera’s long shadow was reaching out to the sheds. They had to be getting close.
“What do you have to trade at the market?” Caeyu asked.
“I’ve prepared some blood. I also have the harpy feather and some of my brothers’ baby teeth.”
“Will it be enough?”
“To get close to Jera? I’m... Prepared to give something greater, if it comes down to it.”
“Lufa will be furious with you.”
Ivor glared at her. He didn’t like it when she name dropped his guardian. It was just her way of bullying him into doing things her way.
“It’ll be worth it. The folk dance is the only time Jera will-”
“Have the power of a God," Caeyu rolled her eyes. "Everyone knows. But you’re not valuing yourself enough.”
“Finding the cure is worth anything.”
Ceayu felt her vines twist. She hated that part of him, the human part.
"Are you looking to help a sick loved one?" Crayben asked.
Ivor knotted the ends so the braid would stayed tied. "Something like that."
"Admirable of you to set out for them, and at such a young age."
The Elf seethed. I’m going to throw that centaur off this thing if he says one more encouraging word.
“Well, no matter what your plan is, you’re not going to get anything but eternal servitude looking like that."
He couldn’t argue with that. Mud covered, tattered, clothes stained every color but white wasn’t going to get them far. They hadn’t been to a dwelling in a while so he hadn’t the means to get cleaned up.
The river burst, making the passengers yelp. The satyr told them to remain calm, the rapids were just anxious with so many new folk arriving.
This is why I hate water, too temperamental, Ivor thought.
Waves picked them up with white peaks and rocked the raft despite the satyr’s best efforts to keep them stable. The shore whipped and bent farther away. Suddenly, they rocked around a sharp wave that sent them vertical.
"Calm." The satyr yelled and smacked the water with an ore.
The wave sloshed forwards but rested to reveal an entrance to the outer market. Ivor requested to get off, as did the rest of the occupants.
Soaking wet Caeyu wished she could take her mask off and dry herself. The chaos of the crowd hid them well but she couldn’t risk Ivor’s chance and get them kicked out. His face was usually perfectly neutral, a trait of his heritage she imagined, but right now he was near scowling. He was such a flower sometimes.
Entering Faitois’ market was a journey for the senses. Folk from all around the Borealis had come, bringing their food, music and fabrics. Each vendor made small stands decorated with flags or painted designs, at the top of them all being a few symbols in Elvish telling what wares or services they offered. Even Fae used Elvish as it was unexpected for any folk to know anything but the language of the land.
This gave Ivor an advantage.
He quickly targeted a Fae who traded for ‘alter selves’. A story Fae, typically used for changing events in one’s life or alter the physical attributes of the customer. For a lesser price, he bet he could have his sopping outfit glamoured into something much more desirable.
The Fae herself was the color of storm clouds, her wings soft and fibrous like a moth’s. With an extended maw of a predator and red irises she tracked them as Ivor and Caeyu approached. A contract was already forming in her mind.
“Good afternoon, travelers,” she said in slippery Elvish. It was sounded unnatural, the Elvian tongue being full of hard sounds, nothing like the celestial and smooth language the Fae was used to.
“Hail our Queen, our sun, dear sister,” Ivor said in Faele. “Please greet us warmly in this celebration. I have come for a contract.”
The Fae giggled, amused at a folk speaking her language, and spun round and round in the air, landing upside down. “Oh, brother, I shall serve you well. What do you desire of me? My heart aches to serve you in the name of our Queen.”
“If you deign me such an offer, my affluence would be greatened if you would grace me with the robes of a lord.”
Her lips pulled back, a snake tongue whipping out past green teeth. “Only for my brother. I ask to feast on the flesh of your back as trade.”
Caeyu’s nails extending into sharped splinters. I’ll rip off her jaw, she thought, that’d fetch a nice price.
“My dear sister,” Ivor said feigning a languid tone. “How would I rise? I need my strength to honor our Queen. I will not fail her in my devotion. Accept this, two holders with my blood, rich with youth and magic, in the stead of my flesh.”
The jars were bigger than Caeyu imagined he make. She didn’t like this.
“I accept this contract.”
The Fae snatched the two containers out of Ivor’s hand. Still upside down she opened them with gusto and let the red liquid pour down into her mouth and over flowed to the ground. Cheeks dripping, Ivor could see her relishing the intoxication she got from his blood.
“Take my hand, brother. In your mind’s eye, picture how you wish to be, and I shall glamour you as such."
With the barest of touch he changed. Thin soles became heeled black leather booths up to his knees. Trousers hanging on by a thread were now dark, tight, and seamless. His tattered navy robe was made to look new while his blouse disappeared completely, in its place a white wrap to cover his chest and an open jacket of smoke to float around him.
Caeyu smirked. Ivor looked like the godchild of a Fae from the High Court. He was going to catch the eye of every female and Sidhe in the dwelling.
He might just be able to do this.
They marched off, Ivor no longer moving to avoid attention, but strutting. The flora and herb folk traded him everything he wanted for practically nothing. He spoke quietly to a few Fae, would act interested in a new contract but ultimately walk away. After a few hours a leprechaun woman approached them. She was tall, pact with muscle, and had red hair hidden under her guard helmet. Bowing, she introduced herself as Izobel, and with a happy voice offered them dinner at her Godmother’s home, insisting she’d be overjoyed to have them as guests.
Ivor refused, Izobel insisted, saying her Godmother would not take no as the protector of Jera. Ivor accepted. How could he turn down an invitation to meet the protector of the dwelling?
By sun down there wasn’t a single folk who hadn’t seen or heard of a mysterious ward. Some said he must of traveled from Queen Mab’s domain to spy on Titania. While they were walking towards the trunk of Jera, where their host surely lived, Caeyu nudged him.
“How you feeling?” she asked in Faele so that Izobel wouldn’t understand them.
"It’s too crowded, everywhere."
“I despise speaking in Faele, it’s exhausting.”
“It’s a neat party trick though. Just wow this one last Fae and I’m sure it’ll be smooth sailing for the next couple of days. I recommend not being yourself. You’re horrid at parties.”
“I resent that. Social gatherings are what’s wrong, not me.”
The home of Jera’s protector resembled a crown that circled the entire mass of the gigantic tree and was made of stone and ivy. Towers spiraled up at varying heights form the base. Jera was apart of the court, afterall, she should be treated as such.
Izobel introduced them to all the folk servants they passed as Ivor the Wanderer and companion. The servants bowed to him and spoke to Caeyu as if she was his help. They refused to let them enter the dining hall without a greater escort to announce their arrival. Three more folk, another leprechaun warrior and two satry pages lead them proudly. Ivor got the impression they didn’t have guests often.
Massive quartz doors required both leprechauns to open them to enter the dining hall, their hostess awaiting.
She was rich skinned with soft pink hair and cerulean eyes. Besides her crown of branches and copper wings draping her back she wore nothing. She was lounging on one of the many pillows that covered the floor. In front of her was a round table where sprites flew about, placing different drinks and foods down until no space was left.
The party of six bowed, though Ivor only did a small dip.
Izobel spread her legs apart and pounded her heart with her fist. “Godmother, I present Ivor the Wanderer and his companion. Ivor the Wanderer, I present Samhoira of Fàitois, protector of Jera, court of Queen Titania.”
Ivor waited to be invited closer. Samhoira was surveying him with a sleepy expression, but he could tell she was more interested in Caeyu.
I hope it wasn’t dangerous to bring her here, he thought.
“Forgive me, dear Wanderer, it requires much of my power to repel all the new souls away from our Jera. It could be dangerous, you see.”
“I imagine it exhausting, but you are capable of such a noble title, my lady. The folk song will revive you, surely?”
“It will bring me the euphoria of blossoming into this world once more. Come, join me.”
The escorts spread to the four corners of the room while Caeyu remailed close behind him. Samhoira enjoyed the raw fish wrapped in a type of leaf. Ivor relaxed but didn’t touch a single thing. Rule number one was that you never accept anything Fae offered, especially food.
“Gentle guest, may I ask you a question?” Samhoira asked.
“It would be my pleasure,” he said.
“I have never seen a human so ripe and carefree in our lands. Are you not afraid?”
He shook his head.
“Why ever not?”
He laid out on the pillows on his back but turned his head to Samhoira. Under her exhaustion he could see her calculating. He’d rather that then outright suspicious.
“I came here when I was a child. On Earth I was frail, sick, most days unable to rise from my bed. When my guardian came for me and brought me here, in truth I knew no world. I had not experienced the Earth like other children. The Borealis was equally foreign, but what I truly came to know.”
She smiled. “I see. But what of our beasts, the many folk. Did they not paralyze you?”
“May I regale you with a story?”
Caeyu rolled her eyes behind her mask. He was being too casual with her in sharing his hobby. Was this his plan? To entertain the Sidhe into giving him permission to see Jera?
“I would deeply enjoy one," said Samhoira
Ivor lulled his head to look at the patterned stone ceiling. “This place reminds me of a cave. When I was still not all healed from sickness, still unaware of what this world held, my guardian left me in a cave. It’s mouth was taller than I knew how to compare at the time. My guardian, wise and knowing, left me there so that I could learn to survive the night by myself. I far exceeded his expectations. That night was when I became folk.
“Curled on the floor, cold and hungry I did not move, only pray for sleep. It did not come. The new moon would not lower and I was left bitter. In darkness I began to feel the very ground below me shake. Gradually, my surroundings rattled and I knew a mass was approaching the cave. It was crunching lesser trees and brush in its wake. With no other place to run I forced myself into a crevice in the wall. When the last tree fell before the cave, a beast I still have no name for emerged. It seemed impossibly gargantuan, and most certainly my death bringer.
“I held my breath. So large it was it perfectly fit within the mouth of the cave. It’s paws had claws longer than I knew a man could grow and had no head. Only a body that flattened so that it’s reflective milky eyes could take up almost the whole of its front. It marched passed me, it’s fur briefly filling the crack I hid in. So certain I was going to end in my thoughts that I almost exited my secret place. Had I not turned the panic of my heart outwards I would have most certainly died. I would have been crushed under the paw of the second beast that followed the first. Or I would have been crushed by the third, or fourth, or fifth. There were twelve of those beasts that disappeared into the depths of that cave. With each passing of fur and paw my fear slowly became nothing as I realized a truth.
“The cave I rested in was most certainly their’s. The precision they fit within it, with no mistake they must have made it. How could I stand their afraid when I was the one in their home? When I was certain they had gone where they wished, I left the cave and became determined to survive the night. I had faced an uncertain ending and decided my death was in my control. With the deris they created in the march I made a fire. I made a shelter. I made food.
“To control death, I had to learn what made life. I have since never shied from a beast or plant. Traveling the Borealis has only taught me how to live, my lady.”
“And your journey has brought you here," Samhoira smiled. "I am displeased with lies, so tell me Ivor the Wanderer, why did you come to Fàitois?”
Ivor agreed with Samhoira. He hated lies. “During the folk dance, Jera will be a god, and it is while Jera is a god I’d like to learn something from her.”
“What is it you seek?”
“I can not say.”
“As her protector, I will not let you near Jera without knowing your intentions. You could do the unspeakable.”
“I can not tell you my intentions, my lady. But I have prepared an offering of blood and my own treasures. I am willing to part with these to prove my resolve to you.”
Samhoira rose from her pillows and beckoned him to follow her. Ivor obeyed along with the warriors and Caeyu. She led them through the halls to a ascending stairwell that mimicked the outward spiral. They spun up into the murky air. More warriors were patrolling the top of the crown and below them were workers moving up and down Jera with ropes.
With a twirl of her palm Samhoira’s fingertips glowed white. She put them between her lips and whistled. All movement froze. Around the turn of the walls a figure was sprinting towards them past the other servants. A young centaur came barreling towards them. Caeyu just barely grabbed Ivor to pull him out of the way from being trampled.
“Sorry,” said the centaur. “I can get going easily, but stopping is still a trick.”
“No harm,” Samhoira said responding to him in kind with Elvish. “Gentle guest, this is another Godchild of mine, Wickferd. Wickferd, this is our guest of the night, Ivor the Wanderer.”
Ivor lowered his head and the centaur did the same.
“We’ve had many guests of late, Godmother.”
She laughed. “Why yes, we have. Would you care to give him a tour of the perimeter with me?”
“Morning light. Only if you give me the pleasure of carrying you.”
Samhoira, in one smooth motion, placed her hands on his shoulder and lifted herself onto Wickferd’s back to sit side saddle. “You spoil me.”
“Nonsense, I’m just efficient. Come with us, esteemed guest.”
Wickferd moved as if the Fae was not even on top of him. Ivor found this most remarkable as the godchild had no back legs, but two wheels harnessed to his rear end. He went to inspect it when Caeyu discreetly kicked him in the shin.
The group began circling Jera. Fireflies floated all through the air from deep in the branches of the tree to down to their heads, allowing a clear view into the thick depths of the tree. For a moment, Ivor thought it was a trick of the light, but no, there were really folk moving above them. They seemed to be the size of insects compared to their surroundings, but they scurried all around, disappearing until they were too high to see.
“We work night and day to keep up with Jera’s output,” said Samhoira. “Those that live in this dwelling depend on the fruits and vegetation grown in the leaves. But we can not allow folk to climb and forage for their own food. It is far too dangerous. That’s why I exclusively have my wards perform that duty. Children are often bargained to me for favor, thus they have my protection against Jera’s tactics to shake them from her bosom. But some like Wickferd are abandoned at my doorstep and must become warriors or scouts.”
Ivor bowed to the centaur. “I’m sorry your parents would dishonor you so horribly.”
“Please do not apologize for their actions,” said Wickferd. “If they kept me I most certainly would have died. Godmother has given me the ability to have purpose, and I am happy to serve her.”
“But to not even ask for a contract? It’s reprehensible.”
Samhoira sighed and leaned against Wickferd. “It saddens me greatly but it is more than uncommon in this dwelling. We are fortunate that most are contracted Godchildren. Just recently we’ve gained forty more, some barely weaned. But there shall always be darkness with light. Most days my home is filled with Godchildren playing or learning, as they are only required to spend every sixth week working within Jera. However, almost all my wards are up there now. It worries my greatly.”
Wickferd placed a hand on her thigh. “We haven’t lost anyone, Godmother. You’ve taught us well, no godchild of yours would let you down.”
“Thank you, my sun. You’re assurance holds my heart together.”
“Why has all your godchildren ascended Jera if it’s a great risk?” Ivor asked.
Samhoira tugged on the centaur’s mane and he stopped. Turning to the human at her side, her tired eyes now burned bright. “As you’ve said, my gentle guest, Jera will become a god during the folk dance. Every four thousand years she becomes one with our Goddess. Like anything alive when they become a god, Jera will change. Her wood, her leaves, the fruit she creates and the vegetation, all of it will take on a quality unlike before. Some produce might have life reviving capabilities, or grant the beholder unknown power. It could become fatal, turn folk to beast. We can not risk any part of Jera be taken without knowing the outcomes.
"And yet, I’ve been given more Godchildren. Life has been sacrificed to me, memories given, entire lineages forsake, those with true love bonds broken. All to have a bid on what might be made.
"Do you see? These things you have offered me for a contract are nothing. If you are sincere in your purpose you must offer me something much greater, a part of your future, not your past.”
Ivor knew this moment would come, as did Caeyu. But while Caeyu was near giving in, Ivor was steady as the stone they stood on.
“I offer my ability to have children.”
The warriors around them gasped. Samhoira slowly sat tall. “I will accept a first born and a quarter of your life in servitude. You do not have to offer this.”
Ivor extended his hand to her. “Samhoira of Fàitois, protector of Jera, court of Queen Titania. I have a purpose the will meet its end and a resolve that is endless. As a mortal I have the gift of creating life, to leave behind offspring, and have an honorable heritage. This very gift I offer you, in return that you in two days time during the folk dance allow me to be at Jera’s breast and let me ask her a question with all her power.”
Samhoira took in a breath and clasped their hands together. “I accept this contract.”
For the first time in his life, Ivor made a contract with a Fae that sent him to his knees. Caeyu caught him before his head hit the ground and pulled him close.
Moaning Samhoira’s hands ran down and around her lower belly to then cup her inner thighs. “We shall celebrate this contract promptly with the dwelling after the folk dance. Though you may not reap any benefits from it, you should still join and indulge in the pleasure. For now, you should find your lodgings comfortable for rest. See you with the sun.”
Izobel took them back down to their room. Caeyu was digging into his skin helping him stay up. Their height difference of a foot and a half didn’t help, but despite the pain her holding him up was appreciated. He hadn’t felt this weak since he was a child.
The leprechaun opened the door to their room and just as quickly shut it behind them. With the click of the latch Caeyu threw him down hard.
“Does your own life not have any value to you at all?” she shouted. “Do you find yourself so worthless that you choose to leave nothing behind?”
Everything was spinning with spots flooding his vision. Caeyu’s anger was causing her to sprout while her fingers had grown into sharpened splinters. Despite this, he felt nothing at all. He couldn’t give her any consolidation for what he’d done. For years he had had this plan. Should anything be worth the price he’d give up all bargaining chips he’d have in the future on one thing. It’d be worth it.
Caeyu’s rage was too intense to stand still. She wanted to rip herself apart.
Ivor vaguely registered her leaving, thinking it was a good idea. She wasn’t safe here.