One night with mortals was enough. I never found pleasure in watching a death I’d never face. The Earth itself draws me from the Realm at Samhain. Mortals were a momentary distraction.
The Queen had given me leave to stay behind while the rest of the riders went back to the Realm. We’d had good sport this night: trapping two men and three women and taking our pleasure of them. After a night with Fae lords and ladies our little toys would pine for us, their souls tied to a Realm they could never approach in body. They’d be dead long before next year’s Ride came through.
I sang as the sun rose, letting the sounds and the light wash over me. My soul expanded to fill the whole of the woods and I added my Name to my song, weaving my self into the wonderful turning of the day. I felt sated, replete, content.
My peace shattered when a rude, mortal, voice sang with me. He mimicked me, mocked me, threw my music back at me careless of the delicate song I wove. That he didn’t know he’d Named me meant nothing. By the law he could claim anything of me. To owe another Fae rankled, but to owe a mortal?
My blood, still hot from the night’s Ride, boiled within me. With a gesture, I pulled the air from his lungs, stopping his coarse song along with his breath. Another gesture and the earth shuddered and heaved, pulling him in up to his knees, immobilized. He began to purple in his struggle for breath.
I strode over and reached my arms through the void that surrounded him. At that moment, in truth I did not intend his death. I would erase my Name’s song from his mind, then leave him to wander and wonder on how he’d spent Samhain. Sweeping his simple hat from his head, I placed my hands on his temples. When I touched him I saw myself as he saw me: tall and terrible, pale and beautiful as the sunrise. His death. I began to shove memories from his mind, blowing the chaff of his thoughts away. I found the memory that told why he had come out of his safe hovel on the night the Fae rode. His wife labored to bring their babe into this world and the midwife had sent him to search for certain herbs. He’d found me instead.
Death we Fae don’t comprehend, but new life sings to us. I repented my actions, but too late. The air shrieked back in, the ground opened to release his legs. In my anger I’d pushed too hard, too carelessly through his mind and then my remorse made me stop too abruptly.
I let go of him and he dropped limp to the ground, eyes open but unseeing, whimpering like the newborn that might already have pushed its way between his wife’s legs. His breath fell out of him in a sigh and I waited for him to take in another. It never came. Death took him, the glowing imprint of my hands still shining on his brow. His fear for his family faded last from his mind, accompanied by the song of my Name.
I wiped my hands on my cloak and backed away from the body. The new-risen sun cast accusing beams onto his corpse and I wanted nothing more than to leave this place. I turned my thoughts to the Realm and began to make the step that would take me home.
The man was just another mortal, smelling of sheep and chickens, sweat and fear. He was also an obligation. He’d sung my Name and had wanted his family cared for. Responsibility pushed aside revulsion and even the mild regret I felt for his death. I stepped to his cottage with its thatched roof, the cow byre against the outer wall, and the flock of chickens scratching in the dirt before his door. I moved, no louder than a breeze, to stand near the window. Within a few moments I heard the lusty cries of a newborn child, the practiced sounds of a midwife cleaning up her charge, and the awed sighs of a relieved mother.
Good. No obligation existed, I told myself, for these were safe after their labors. I stepped into the Realm, impatient to leave the stink of blood and death behind me.
I thought about him. My debt to that puling mortal pulled at me, bound me to that cottage. My skills had never run to farming, but even I knew cows needed milking, eggs needed collecting, and bread needed baking.
Imbolc had just past on earth: the seeds stirred of themselves and the first breaths of spring scented the air. The twilight of evening couldn’t hide the truth. Thatch torn by winter winds remained unrepaired. The flock of chickens had dwindled to two, and no cows or sheep remained in the pens beyond the house. The cost of my unpaid debt beggared me. With a thought I changed my clothes from satins to sturdy homespun and put aside all jewelry save for my signet ring. I cloaked myself in a silence and waited while dusk turned to night and the farmer’s family lay down in their desperate bed.
I crept into the single-room cottage and began my service. Anything I could do would ease my debt. I cleaned the hearth, the floors, the dishes. I emptied chamber pots and filled buckets with sweet water from the Realm itself. Taking dough from my Queen’s own kitchen, I set bread to baking in their oven. Morning found my inside work done but too soon to begin anything out doors. The cow byre, as I feared, stood empty and I made my bed there, to sleep that first day away.
That next evening I spent more time in the yard. I cut and stacked wood for their hearth, I repaired fences and cleaned debris from the pens, unneeded though they were. When I entered the coop, the pile of filthy straw and chicken shit near gagged me. With duty a whip to my shoulders, I sang sleep onto the restless chickens and began my work. By morning I had replaced the foul straw, spreading the old into the garden and new in the coop. Before I ended my night’s labors I stepped to another farm far distant and returned with a few extra hens and a young rooster. Finally, I set loaves to baking once more and retreated to my barn to sleep.
The mortal months passed away, until Beltane drew close. I set the fertility festival as the limit to my labor since, thanks to me, the farm prospered. Chickens scratched in the yard and laid eggs in their nests. The garden, planted by my own hands, grew green with new life. No sheep or cattle, but with only the woman and two small children, what need had she of cattle? I would meet my charges and make myself known to the woman so that she could thank me for my efforts on her behalf, before returning home to the Realm with tales to tell.
On the day of the Beltane rites, I woke early in the afternoon and put on a glamour: I would seem a wandering minstrel. What a perfect way to meet the woman and be made welcome at the festival! I approached the cottage whistling one of the old, jaunty songs celebrating the day, a bodhran strapped to my back. The farmer’s wife stood in the yard, the chickens scratching at her feet and the young girlchild, born the night her father died at my hands, in her arms.
“Good afternoon!” I said, cheerful as a lark at morn. “Might I trouble you for a drink?”
“Of course.” She shared a hesitant smile, shifting the babe on her hip and pushing a strand of hair behind one ear. “The well’s next to the house. Help yourself.”
“Why thank you,” I said. “I’m called Robin.”
“My name is Lona. You’re welcome to the water.” She looked at me and I realized that I hadn’t made a move towards the well. I smiled and stepped around back, going the wrong way.
“No, Robin. The other side.”
I tipped my cap, never ceasing my whistled song, and trotted over to the well as Lona watched. The water tasted as it always did: cold and harsh with minerals. Lona was a fine looking lass, buxom and with blue eyes the color of a mountain lake. Her hair, long and black as night, spilled in exuberant curls down her back, evading comb and pin. The child delighted in it, and every time her mother pushed a wayward strand behind one ear, the babe would pull it into her mouth. Lona laughed and pulled the hair away from the girl. Lona’s laugh filled the yard as rain fills the parched earth.
I decided then how she would thank me for my work.
I returned to the front of the cottage and if I put a touch of glamour into my appearance, it was no more than a touch. “Thank you, mistress.”
“You’re welcome. Do you come for the festival?”
I smiled and lifted my drum. “I have. I bring news of the wider world and a few songs to sing.”
“Then, minstrel, I offer you the comfort of my hearth, although the food is simple.”
Not so simple as all that. I’d taken good cheese and smoked fish from a local lord’s larder but three nights past. She walked to the door and held it open.
They ushered me into the cottage I knew so well. For the first time I sat before the hearth instead of cleaning it. Lona brought me a mug of heather ale and set out bread, fish, and cheese.
I talked while we ate, telling her tales of the wider world. I knew somewhat of the happenings at other farms and the rest I made up: the affairs of mortals changed little year to year, century to century. If I put myself into the stories, Lona seemed to appreciate it. I touched her hand to draw a point. When I shifted my seat and moved closer to her, she didn’t pull away. The farmer’s eldest, a son, glared at me, but I’d make sure he slept sound when I took his mother in their bed that night.
Once darkness fell, we closed up the cottage and walked to the hill where the fires were lit. I met the neighbors, told my stories and sang some songs. No doubt they had never heard a wandering minstrel sing so well, but I’m Fae. My song is one thing I can’t – won’t – disguise.
I danced with Lona at every opportunity. I made the baby Avrea laugh, earning me smiles from her mother. I even taught young Rand to sing a song of my own making in honor of Beltane. He sang it with youthful gusto a hundred times to all who would listen. That earned me no smiles, but it kept him busy and away from our side. Naked couples leapt over the flames and I passed Lona meaningful glances when those couples wandered off to field or glen to finish the fertility rites.
The night grew late and Lona sent her children off with her mother. I smiled, sure that we’d be seeing the sunrise together from her bed. Before he left, I saw Rand take his mother’s hand and whisper in her ear. Lona nodded, kissed her son, and pushed him towards his grandmother’s arms. Once they were out of sight, my impatience grew. I would wait no longer and began to move us back to her cottage.
She paused in the doorway, turning to me with a mysterious smile caressing her lips, her eyes. “Do you think my bed will be comfortable?”
I laughed, pulled her close to me. “With you in it, how could it not?”
She set her hands on my chest and looked into my eyes. “As comfortable as the cow byre you’ve slept in all these months?”
She shoved me! I was so surprised I fell against the doorway, so taken aback I could scarce feign disbelief. “Lona, I don’t —”
“Rand told me a story some weeks ago of how he had chased one of the Good Folk into the byre. He thought it good fun until the Fae turned to him with terrifying eyes and a cruel laugh. He hardly slept for many nights afterwards because of the nightmares.” She looked at me, her gaze hot with anger at this misuse of her son. “His restlessness made my sleep fitful. Once I awoke and spotted someone moving about. It was passing strange, for even though pots scrubbed themselves I heard no sounds, and even though fresh-baked bread cooled on the table, I smelled nothing. But I saw, Robin. I saw.”
A smile began on my lips. “Were the pots clean and the bread fine?”
“Yes.” Although she agreed, her face was set and her eyes cold.
“Then I’m glad. I’ve been your silent servant for many months, Lona. You can thank me for saving your farm from ruin.”
“Hmm. So I thought. But I have one question.”
“Yes?” I asked, fool that I was.
“Why, Robin? The Fae don’t just help poor widows and I’ve given you nothing.”
“Untrue! Any number of times you’ve left a bowl of porridge out for me.”
“Ah, that would be Rand again. He’s heard the stories. He thought he’d better keep the Good Folk pleased with us.”
“I know how you could make me very pleased.”
“You have not answered my question, Robin of the Fae. Why help me and for how long? Will you serve me for ever? For now we eat, enough so we don’t go hungry. But I fear for us all the same, once winter comes.”
I looked around the farm, confused. “What do you mean? The farm prospers, and you with it. It’s what he wanted and what I’ve done.”
She walked towards me. Even knowing who I was she put her hands on me, turning my face towards hers. “Did my husband think of me, then, when you killed him?”
“Of course.” Until I said it, I didn’t know she’d take it so ill. She slapped me as tears spilled from her eyes. Her impertinence stunned me into blurting out a defense I shouldn’t have had to make. “Why else would I clean chamber pots and chicken coops? I’ve saved you and so have repaid my debt to him. Be happy with that.”
“Happy?” Her laughter was a choking, terrible sound. “As it is, I am all but a pauper, the farm barely enough to keep us fed. This winter will be harsh, with no wool for new clothes, no meat from sheep or cattle. You’ve saved us all right. In springtime when food grows with hardly any help from human – or Fae – hands, we prosper. What will we do when snow flies again? Did you think of that when you killed my husband?”
My anger crashed against her implacable rage. How ungrateful! Three months had taught me nothing. Mortals are not Fae; a simple truth. The more complex truth is that Fae are not mortals.
She turned towards the open door to the cottage. I saw nothing but her rigid back when she said: “If you think that washing dishes and baking bread will repay your debt to me, repay what you’ve taken from my children, then I wish you luck of it. For I say you owe us a debt not to be met in my lonely lifetime. If my children thank you for what you’ve done, then your debt is quit. But I’ll never thank you for anything.”
The door closed, cutting me off from the cottage, the hearth, and the woman who had turned hate-filled eyes my way before the door slammed shut.
I roared my fury into the breaking morning. My roar I turned to dreadful song and the tender green plants wilted in the garden. I summoned a gale that screamed against the cottage, the walls shaking as if in fear of my rage. I clenched my hands and the cow byre collapsed, the thunder of splitting wood and falling stones echoing my awful song.
I raised my fists towards the closed door, but my righteous fury spent itself against the barrier of the debt she still claimed. Thwarted, I turned and stepped away from the house and into the woods a league distant. In my anger I didn’t realize where I headed until I stood in the very glen where I’d killed her husband. His corpse had long since been reclaimed by relatives, but his spirit lingered, his claim choked me like a miasma.
I would have stepped into the Realm then, leaving the ungrateful woman and her squalling spawn behind me. But how could I reveal to my Queen, to all my kin and friends, that a mortal held me in debt? Or that I could leave any debt unpaid? I would be proclaimed an oathbreaker, untrustworthy. A fool. The door to Faerie was shut as firmly as the door to Lona’s cottage.
I’d to hold to my debt, but not as Lona might wish it. I would make the woman release me. She’d learn what it meant to anger one of the Fae.
Over the next weeks, my work was not without sport for me. Sometimes I kept the bread from rising and for a day they ate hard crusts. Or I let mice into the grain to add shit to their porridge. Thatch, sturdy and strong when the sun shone, would come loose with the first gusty rain, soaking their bed.
It amused me watching the young boy’s attempts to appease me with small gifts of food or things he’d found in the woods. Often, I’d repent my actions and my work would be without fault. But inevitably, Lona would scowl at her son, throw away the gifts or skimp on the porridge, and I’d remember my anger, turning the butter rancid or opening a chink in the walls.
Late that summer, roots and dried herbs hung from the rafters, early grain had been gathered and threshed, and meat from coney and fish awaited the coming months. I slept sound in my rebuilt byre, waiting for the night and my next round of chores, my next bit of mischief. Instead, I awoke to Rand’s screams.
I stepped ino the yard in a thought as a band of raiders, their helms gleaming in the late afternoon light, advanced towards us. I commanded Lona and the children into the cottage. A shout went up when the raiders saw me. They laughed as they charged towards me.
But who would attack an angry Fae? Then I realized that after months of living as a mortal, I looked mortal: filthy, unkempt, dull. But underneath the grime I was still Fae. I cast a glamour and strode towards them aglow with light and terror. My pent up rage exploded, filling the yard with death.
After the last of the raiders died, Lona came back out and stood at my side. I smiled at her, so pleased with myself for dealing such easy death. She looked at the carnage, at the blood splattering my clothes. “Clean this up,” she said, and walked back to the cottage, shutting the door behind her.
I sank to my knees in the courtyard. I’d never leave this place. No mischief would be great enough, no task would be worthy enough, to earn her thanks. I cursed her husband, that unnamed mortal who had tied me here so long that I now shouldered the debt of my own will.
I sighed and stood, not bothering to wipe the gore from my knees, the blood from my clothes. I had a new chore to finish.
I stopped hiding my presence, although I worked in silence. Perhaps I didn’t want to attract Lona’s attention, because with it came her smouldering anger. I worked now into the days as well, stopping only when exhaustion forced me to.
The hard work of autumn began in earnest, as nuts, berries, and late grains grew ripe and were gathered in. The flock of sheep that I had rebuilt so carefully – with “strays” pulled a few at a time from fields far distant – now needed to be reduced for winter’s hardship, the old and the weak butchered, their meat stored. My clothing grew dirty and soiled as I forswore the use of magic on myself. No glamour to cloak or clothe me, no songs to ease my heart or body.
On Samhain eve, instead of preparing to Ride with the wondrous Fae I prepared to clean the filth from the sheep pens. That night, cold and clear with stars staring at me with mocking eyes, seemed to fight off dawn for a hundred years. But when morning did come, the light of day shone down hard and cold on me standing amidst sheep pens cleared of fouled straw.
I turned from my labor and near ran into Lona. Disgust clouded her face as she looked at my filthy clothes. My own face burned with shame.
“Clean yourself. I have a new suit of clothes for you. The ones you have on are disgusting. You’re scaring my children.”
My tunic and trews were layered in mud and shit smeared across what precious little fabric remained. I who had once worn spun gold and damask, was now clad in clothes gone to rags.
She laid the new clothes on the rail next to me. Made of coarse cloth from sheep I’d sheared and spun by her own hands, they fit me well enough. She looked at me for the scarcest moment and then looked over the yard. “Tomorrow, repair the thatch on the cottage and sheep byre. Winter will be here soon.” I bowed my head and listened as her steps took her back inside, to where the children laughed and played. She shut the door.
Years passed this way. Every morning after Samhain she presented me with a new suit of clothes and a new chore. If I waited for her to thank me and discharge me from my labors, I waited in vain.
Lona died. Perhaps by mortal standards she had lived a long life. But a morning came when she failed to come out of the cottage. Rand lived there still, with his wife and sons. Avrea, married into a neighboring farm, came running as soon as she heard. I saw her come, I felt tension in the air, but I didn’t know why. The work of the farm came to a halt while the family gathered in the cottage.
At twilight I cloaked myself from their sight and entered her home. The once-simple cottage now boasted rooms with beds, and hers was the largest and in the back of the house. The rest of the family kept vigil in the common room while I made my way to her side.
Her room stank. Not the normal mortal stink of piss and sweat. I didn’t know what the smell was, until I stood next to her bed. Lona struggled for each breath, a gurgling rasp sounding in her chest with each painful effort. She was dying! Long ago her hair had turned white and wrinkles scored her face. Her skin fell loose about her throat and sported deep blue veins dusted with brown spots on her hands. Age would rob me of my mortal enemy where all my mischief had failed.
Avrea came into the room then and stood across the bed from me. I stayed, hidden from her sight, and silent. She knelt next to her mother and took one of those spotted, wrinkled hands in her own. Avrea’s own hair was shot through with silver strands, her body worn from bearing the children who gathered outside this room, holding babies of their own.
Lona looked up at her daughter, smiled, and breathed out, her sigh coming easy from her chest. Avrea bowed her head, closed her eyes, and I watched the tears begin to fall. My adversary was gone. Avrea didn’t keep vigil alone that night for I would not leave Lona’s side, holding her other hand while the human flesh grew cold.
Years later, when Rand died, I again hid myself from the sight of my family. Even so, every night a bowl of porridge or a wedge of cheese waited for me by the hearth. After every Samhain, a suit of clothes was laid out for me by the sheep pens and they’d tell my story: A terrible Fae lord had killed their ancestor during a Ride. In righteous anger, their many-times great grandmother had ensnared the evil Fae who had done the crime, forcing him to work in atonement.
True enough. I didn’t quibble with the details.
Seven generations passed that way. A girlchild was born to the then-master of the estate that had grown out from the farms of Rand and Avrea. They named her Lona, a good luck name as they saw it. I watched her grow, same curly black hair, same blue eyes the color of a lake at midday. I befriended the girl. How could I not? She laughed and played and treated me well, setting out cream along with the porridge and bread along with the cheese.
She grew strong and happy. This master had no sons and so in time the estate passed to this new Lona. The farms prospered, with my help, and Lona knew little of want, or fear, or hardship. She spent her days with needle and thread and all in the county came to her when they wanted the finest embroidery, the fairest dress, the fanciest cloak.
I wore plain homespun, gifted to me every Samhain.
Perhaps I should have been more terrifying, their pet Fae. Perhaps I should have warned them that other Fae lived, in the Realm and in the world, who wouldn’t clean chicken coops.
Another Samhain night and I settled into my work. Some time past dusk, Lona left the house and strolled towards the woods. Her younger sister lived on a farm in that direction, but still she shouldn’t have ventured out on such an ill-omened night. I cloaked myself in silence and followed her.
Inside the woods, near the clearing where her many-times great grandfather had died at my hands, the Ride found her. They trapped her within a ring of horses, ghostly steeds whose hooves tore the ground at Lona’s feet. She trembled. These Fae lords and ladies – terrible, lovely, gleaming in linens and gold and aglow with glamour – gazed down at her as a hound does a rabbit, waiting for her to bolt so that the chase could begin. The Queen rode forward until the breath of her mount blew Lona’s hair. “If you flee, you might get away.”
Lona shook her head.
“Oh?” The Queen smiled, but no one there mistook it for mirth. “So, you invite us all to take you here? That will be a ride worth remembering.” She motioned and Lona stiffened, all control over her own body gone. Lona’s mouth wouldn’t open on the scream, but her eyes sang her terror for her.
I became Fae again then, as I hadn’t been in many generations of mortals. I sang, breaking the Queen’s hold on Lona. I stood to my full height as I pushed into the circle to stand beside her.
“Stop! She is under my protection.” I help up my hand. The one ring I’d worn since my servitude began proclaimed my identity to the glittering Riders.
“Robin? Is that you?” The Queen slid off from her horse and came to my side. She sniffed the air, leaned over and sniffed me. “Adam’s balls, but you stink.”
I had forgotten my clothes. “She’s under my protection,” I repeated. “Don’t harm her.”
The Queen looked from me, back to the mortal she’d forgotten about for the last few seconds, puzzlement growing on her face. “She is? Is this what you’ve been doing for so many years of man? Protecting mortal girls instead of Riding them?” The mocking laughter from those around us splashed off the trees.
I shook my head. “The night draws late, my Queen, and she is not for your sport. Ride on.”
The Queen drew herself up, fury clenching her jaw. “I say who is for my sport, not you.” She pushed past me, taking Lona by the jaw. “Should I just kill her?”
Lona moaned, locked in the Queen’s grip.
“Dread Lady, I owe a debt. Can you disregard the law?”
The Queen’s mercurial temper fell from her. “You owe this mortal a debt?” She laughed then, and the courtiers with her, my shame become their sport. She let go of Lona who dropped, dazed, to the ground. “I’ll give this one to you, Robin. But you’re in my debt now and the payment will be far worse than anything this mortal put to you. The tale of this adventure will only be the beginning.” She mounted her horse and without another sound, the Fae host disappeared into the woods.
I jumped when Lona touched my arm. I hadn’t realized I’d been shaking so, until I tried to slow my racing heart. Lona would’ve helped me to sit but my rediscovered pride kept me standing.
“You saved me.”
“You are under my protection.” I could explain it no more fully to a mortal. “You should return home now. I’ll guard your steps should they change their minds.”
She nodded, her face pale and anxious. “I understand. But I must go to my sister’s.”
“Then I’ll watch you to there. Just go. Now. Quickly.”
She made it safely to the farm and I returned to my sleep in the byre. The next day, sometime in the afternoon, I heard something I hadn’t heard in years. Lona stood in the yard, surrounded by a score of her family, and called for me. By name.
“Robin? Robin, come out here. Samhain has passed.”
I came down from the loft and went out to her, my steps faltering and my heart racing.
When I reached the crowd, she stepped forward and took my hands in hers. I hadn’t been touched by another being in so long I’d forgotten the sensation. I stared dumbly at where her skin pressed against my own, nearly missing what she said.
“Robin, you saved my life last night.” She spoke so that all gathered there heard her.
I nodded. While the Fae wouldn’t have murdered her outright, they would have raped her and called it sport. By tying her desires to the Realm she would have died within months, but to their minds she was destined for death anyway.
Lona laid on the fence a suit of clothing. Threads of many rare and wonderful colors, along with costly gold and silver, had been embroidered on linen spun fine and woven without flaw. I blinked, and blinked again, the delicate detail blurring before my eyes. The effort, the best I’d ever seen from Lona’s hand, must have taken months of mortal work.
“Samhain has passed,” she called out, “and you are owed a suit of clothes. Take these.” She smiled at me and whispered so only I could hear, “The one who requested these will just have to wait. I, too, can repay a debt.”
Then she drew herself up, she who knew the story and had told it to her family gathered around her. She, like her ancestor before her, took my face in her hands. “I thank you, Robin. You have been a good fellow to this house. Your debt is quit.”
She kissed me on the cheek before letting go of my face. With her family around her, prosperous and healthy, she walked back into her home.
I have the clothes still.
©David O. Engelstad