The journey was almost over.
Jera’s market was overflowing, making it near impossible for the Wanderer to breathe beneath his mask. His exotic clothes meant nothing in a space of thousands. Centaurs clopped along side satyrs, the skull wearing chaulks hopped above the crowd and down again upon the heads of unsuspecting folk, while hobs darted seamlessly between the legs of towering sasquatch. There was nowhere to move but with the current. Every road was tightened by vendor stands, each covered with flags, painted designs, and a few symbols of Elvish describing the owner’s trade. Even the Fae advertised in Elvish.
This gave the Wanderer an advantage.
He targeted a story Fae, used for changing events in one’s life or to glamour the physical attributes of the contractor. The Fae herself was the color of storm clouds, her wings soft and fibrous. Though she was half his size, her extended maw was that of a predator. Her striking red irises tracked his approach, a contract forming in her mind.
“Good afternoon,” she said in greasy Elvish. "How may I serve?"
The Elvian tongue was full of hard sounds, nothing like the celestial and smooth language of the Fae.
She’s younger, he thought. That makes this much easier.
“Hail our Queen, our sun, dear sister,” the Wanderer said in perfect Faele. “Please greet me warmly in this celebration. I have come for a contract.”
The Fae burst into raucous laughter. She spun round and round in the air before resting upon her back. “Oh, brother, I shall provide well for you. What do you desire of me? My heart aches to serve in the name of our Queen,” she responded this time in Faele.
“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 between green teeth. “Only for my brother. In return, I ask to feast on the flesh of your back as trade.”
He couldn’t be certain, but out of the corner of his eye, he swore his shadow had flickered.
“My dear sister, how would I rise? I need my strength to honor our Queen. I will not fail her in my devotion. Accept this, two holders of my blood, rich with youth and magic, in the stead of my flesh.”
The jars he held out were larger than his fist and full of liquid ruby. Without a second thought the Fae snatched the containers with her claw.
“I accept this contract.”
Still laying down upon the air, she popped the corks and with gusto allowed the blood to pour into her mouth. Unable to restrain herself, her precious blood began to overflow to the ground. Cheeks stained, wings fluttering, the Fae relished her intoxication.
“Take my hand, brother. In your mind’s eye, picture how you wish to be, and I shall glamour you as such."
With his black gloved hand he gave the barest of touch. Thin soles became heeled leather boots to his knees. Trousers hanging on by a thread were now a tight, dark fabric. The discolored blouse now constricted to his form with a glitter of fresh snow. His worn navy robe transformed entirely, it’s material now made of flowing black smoke.
With the exception of the story Fae, too drunk to notice, the crowd bubbled out from the stand. All folk knew who he was. When his cloak had covered the large medicine box and duffel on his back, he had appeared hunched and small. Now with his figure exposed, it was clear who was before them.
The Wanderer was infamous across Boreal for traveling the world. Through the Aimless lands, to deep within both Domains of the Sidhe Queens. He was the only folk to have this unburdened freedom. Rumors said he had powerful connections, allowing him to move between the courts. When folk encountered him, it only furthered the speculation of his origin. Afterall, it was only natural for them to wonder how the only human in their world came to be.
Wanderer was a title given to him since he started traveling as a child. It was a name, one of many, that was convenient, but not fully true. Names in Boreal were a type of currency. So it suited him to have a name gifted to him that he could use, rather than risk any other name that was completely his own. The Wanderer made him sound harmless and isolated. His sincere name, the one closest to his true self, was Ivor, and he enjoyed appearing unsuspecting and being alone.
Whether those descriptors held up or not depended on the day.
You expect Samhoira to answer her door to you? his shadow asked.
"I’m not going to her," Ivor said dusting off his gloves, the one thing that remained unchanged from the glamour. "She’s going to invite me."
Which he knew was a gamble. His ’connections’ made him a prime candidate for forming contracts with Fae. Which was why he so rarely made them. He had to hope that word of his arrival would spread to Samhoira. She was the great Jera’s guardian and the heart of the dwelling he stood in, as well as the crux for his plan to work.
For the moment he couldn’t help but relish his cleanliness and the fact every folk in sight gave him ample space. It was marvelous. He knew the crowd was going to be intense with the folk dance only three suns away. But that didn’t mean he hated it any less.
Now with step one, make his presence known, accomplished he had to move on to step two, appear open to contracts. Unfortunately, there was little way to do that besides walking around and baragaining.
The sheer thought of staying in the hot, suffocating crowd all day made his chest tighten.
It’ll be over soon, he told himself.
Ivor took the middle of the street and with every step reminded himself to breathe. The market smells were savory in salt and smoked meat. After his stomach became upset from the smell, he made a point to avoid the food vendors. Instead he focused on the Fae, chose only to speak in Faele, and bought only the most enchanted of tools, if he bought anything at all.
He pondered moving out of the market and more towards Jera. She was one of the largest trees in this world and the next, and was guarded by the stone crown around her trunk. Folk had been lining up for countless years to see the lady in the crown. If he appeared desperate then he’d be on the same level of those folk in line. The lady needed to offer him a contract if he were to get what he desired.
The heat dimmed with the sinking sun. Folk dispersed to the outer edges of the dwelling where makeshift shelters lay. Small sheds for the travelers, but as Ivor saw coming into the dwelling, there wasn’t enough. It felt as if half of Boreal was here.
Once the vendors closed their shops, Ivor took a moment to rest against one of Jera’s massive roots that waved above ground. He couldn’t remember the last time he had talked so much. It was exhausting. With no eyes to see, his shadow crept up behind him. It stood up into a dark, formless figure, one that completely blended with night. Ivor could feel it leaning over his shoulder. It’s voice did not enter through his ear, instead going straight to his mind.
You haven’t eaten.
"I’m not hungry."
His stomach had been nothing but knots and nausea. Food was the last thing on his mind.
You need to rest.
He was tired, yes, which meant he didn’t feel like arguing. "Get out the pertsniam, please."
His shadow reached inside his smoke cloak, the medicine box hidden below it. From the top row of four drawers it pulled out the farthest on the right. Inside were long, light green leaves, their fresh smell comforting. Ivor took and put them along his gums and between his teeth to chew. With any hope they would quell his stomach.
If you stand under the new moon all night, your luck will turn deadly, said his shadow.
You mean to do nothing?
His shadow did not reply.
With the market cleared of folk and Fae alike, Ivor finally felt like he could enjoy himself. A quiet evening was his favorite part of the day. The only light came from small orbs moving within Jera’s steel branches. Ivor stared at them, their crawling dance peaceful to him.
I wonder what they are...
Fire was a moot point in Queen Titania’s domain, and glow stone was only used by folk.
A type of beast that pollinates Jera, maybe?
Softer smells within the dirt were coming out over the heavy day. He felt his heart calm more as the night lulled on.
He heard the shape moving towards him before he could see it, and he had never in his life been so relieved to hear the clink of armor. It was a leprechaun. Over seven feet tall and covered from foot to fiery hair in dark plates. She pounded her hand against her chest, then gave a short bow.
"Wanderer, I am Izobel. My godmother, lady Samhoira, has requested your presence."
Ivor bowed his head. "I can not accept such an offer."
"My lady insists."
"Then I can not refuse."
Izobel turned and began to march towards Jera. It was long a walk, and they hit the line of folk sleeping on the ground just outside the market. They laid along the trail up to the stone crown that separated the tree from the rest of the dwelling. It’s twisting spires high above held concentrated magic at it’s peaks. They acted as both deadly and beautiful gems. Ivor had seen something similar, deep within Queen Mab’s domain near a mountain. It was the way the Sidhe Queens respected the natural elements of their court.
The leprechaun led him past the stationed guards outside. She took him through the hall to an ascending stairwell that mimicked the outward spiral. It felt like an eternity passed before they spun up into the fresh air. More warriors were patrolling the top of the crown in pairs. Below them at the trunk were workers moving up and down Jera with ropes. Ivor had never realized how much of an operation it was to manage the ancient tree.
Izobel put two digits between her lips and whistled. The sound made all movement freeze along the crown with one exception. Around the turn of the walls a young centaur came barreling towards them. Izobel pulled Ivor out of the way before he was trampled.
“Sorry,” said the centaur. “I can get going easily, but stopping is still a trick.”
“Nonsense, my child. No harm done."
Lady Samhoira, the Fae protector of Jera, was lying on her escort as one would a lush bed. She looked to Ivor like an animated wood carving, her skin umber and ringed, but lacked the details of a woman’s figure. She had no toes, no belly button, no nipples, or ears. Her face held the most clarity, with an indent above her lip, and soft pink lashes to match the mound of puff that fell from her head to the ground.
Ivor at first assumed this was what Samhoira guessed humans looked like, but her eyes told him otherwise. They were the color of faded sap, with only the barest of sheen to them.
She’s drained most her influence.
“Gentle guest," said the lady, "this is a godchild of mine, Wickferd. Wickferd, this is our guest of the night, the Wanderer.”
Ivor lowered his head and the centaur did the same. He had never seen a Fae so worn that they needed to be carried.
“We’ve had many more guests as of late, Godmother,” Izobel said.
Samhoira softly laughed. “Why yes, we have. Wickferd, would you care to give our guest a tour of the perimeter with me?”
“Morning light! Only if I keep the pleasure of carrying you.”
“You spoil me.”
“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 bent to inspect the scarred tissue when Izobel discreetly kicked him in the shin.
The group began circling Jera. The lights he had seen earlier floated deep throughout the branches, allowing a clear view into the tree’s depths. For a moment, Ivor thought it was a trick of the light, but no, there were folk moving about Jera’s skeleton. They were the size of insects compared to their surroundings. 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 bargained to me for favor 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 into Wickferd’s mane. “It saddens me greatly but it is more than uncommon in this dwelling. We are fortunate that most are contracted godchildren. Today we’ve gained forty more, some barely weaned. Almost all my wards are up there now. It worries my greatly.”
Wickferd placed his hand over hers. “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 have all your godchildren ascended Jera if it’s a great risk?” Ivor asked.
Samhoira tugged on the centaur’s mane to bring him to a halt. “Every four thousand years Jera 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 be fatal. We can not risk any part of Jera taken without knowing the outcomes."
Ivor nodded. He had known Jera was going to have immense power, but he hadn’t considered the effects it would have on her body.
"And yet," Samhoira continued, "I’ve been given more godchildren. Life has been sacrificed to me, memories given, entire lineages forsaken, those with true love bonds broken. All to have a bid on what might be. Since you are here, I am sure you’ve come to make a sacrifice of our own. But," a smoldering of power returned to her eyes. "If you are sincere, you must offer me a part of your future, not your past.”
This was the moment he had been waiting for.
“I offer my ability to have children.”
The godchildren gasped. Samhoira slowly sat tall, her manner no longer welcoming, but suspicious. This was the highest price one could pay, and it was a rare contract made to even the Queens.
“I will accept a first born and a quarter of your life in servitude.”
Ivor extended his hand to her, his tongue sliding into Faele. “Lady Samhoira, 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. Let me ask her one question with all her power when she is one with the Goddess.”
No Fae could resist.
Samhoira 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. Izobel caught him before his head hit the stone and tried to right him, but he knew he couldn’t stand. It felt as if body had fallen away from his soul, his ghost only vaguely aware of what was around it.
Samhoira moaned primally. Her 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, I invite you to join and indulge in the pleasure. For now, you should find your lodgings comfortable for rest. See you with the sun.”
Izobel picked him up into her arms. She supported his dead weight with ease as she descended the stairs to his quarters. The leprechaun opened a door to the small room, laid him on a few pillows, and just as quickly shut it behind him.
He hadn’t felt this weak since he was a child.
His shadow felt like it was enveloping him. Does your own life not have any value to you?
He couldn’t give any consolidation. For years he’d had this plan. Should anything be worth the price he’d give up all bargaining chips for his future on one thing. It’d be worth it.
The cure was worth it.