I had never before taken a mortal for a lover. My paramours had been few, and fae, and even then I found myself eager to end such entanglements near as soon as they had begun. In my pride I thought that I needed no one and so the lonely, empty (in those days) human world outside the realm called to me. I chose to live within its mortal sphere, sundered from my immortal sisters and apart from my death-destined cousins. My limitless days I lived for me and for me alone. And I was content.
Never would I have believed that I would come to love a human man so much that I would bear his child and alter faerie itself to keep Death from taking him.
My home was a valley far removed from any village, any croft, any one who might make themselves my unwelcome guest. When the air grew cold and angry with snow or storm, I took shelter under the ash and oak that covered the hillsides. If the sun shone down fierce and hot I had a stream for bathing. Birds filled the air with sweet songs during the spring and summer, while the ocean pounded a basso profundo counterpoint in the cove at the mouth of the stream. I reveled in the wild world, the sharp mortality and constant change, two things unknown to most fae.
Then a day came when a haunting melody filled the valley, cutting through the chitter of squirrels, smothering the susurrus stream with music. But what music! The instrument was crude, imprecise, the steps between notes rough-hewn. And yet, for all that, this musician made the music sting, sigh, leap, cry. Notes would sag with grief and reach for joy.
A mortal made music within the walls of my valley. No fae would craft music in such a fashion: notes repeated, phrases flowed back unto themselves only to sputter off into a different direction. Each sound ached with raw emotion, each phrase sang of anguish and longing. No fae would reveal such passion in music: we are too restrained, too cautious. Humans can live lives of flame, endure for their scant scores of years the results of actions misguided by the heart. Such passions can tear the fae asunder and so we smother them stillborn.
I gathered my magic to me and stepped from beneath my oak to where I thought the musician to be. But the glen lay empty. A trick of sound had deceived me. I cocked my head and closed my eyes. The music continued, imploring me. There! I stepped again, further down the valley. The musician continued, taunting me. I raced towards the cove that marked the westernmost edge of my demesne, but again found no one. As I readied myself to step a third time, the music stopped.
I stumbled as if a bracing wind blew no more. The next note never came, the musical phrase left incomplete, bereft of what should have followed to give it meaning. I waited in vain, for the only songs sung the rest of that day came from the throats of the birds.
A handful of days passed and I found no sign that anyone save myself had ever been in that valley. Night fell, a blanket under which the birds slept soundless and the squirrels stilled their chitter. Only the sound of the stream remained. Too restless to sleep, I walked the stream side, singing a song to the night. My song isn’t crafted as a mortal’s might be. I don’t stitch music together like a cloak made of many hides. I sang of the sparkling stars, I sang of the cool flowing stream, the black swans gliding alongside me as I walked. At times, that mysterious music would intrude into mine own song, until I shook my head in frustration.
Ah, this mortal musician was subtle. He entwined his own song back onto mine, a full minute passing before I even knew I was accompanied. Mortals don’t have magic, and yet. . . . And yet I felt compelled by this music. I heard the thread of mine own song spun around this other music. A moment later he played the notes back, making a repeating phrase out of the spontaneous notes of my song, but embroidering upon my melody until it stopped my breath. For a moment I listened, spellbound by a mortal magic beyond my ken.
My world lurched and shuddered, shaken by his simple music. All I had crafted here in this valley, this hard-sought seclusion, became imperiled in that moment. Passions – so long kept in check I scarce recognized them – surged within me and I raced across my valley towards my quarry.
Little did I realize that in this I was prey, not hunter. When I reached the glen I knew must shelter the musician, it lay empty and still in the moonlight, the song no more than a memory on the evening breeze.
For the next two days I struggled to keep that music from my mind. When I raised my voice to the dawn I found myself repeating notes, phrases. My voice rang out, loud and echoing down the valley, and I found perverse pleasure in singing back to mine own echo, the redundant phrases sounding more complete together than either had alone. When I hunted for spring berries I would come to find myself standing as if bemused, listening on the wind for music that wasn’t there. I had become ensnared by the music and it wanted only the hunter to come collect his prize.
There came a dawn when I hunted in the ocean near the mouth of my stream. I swam swift as any seal in search of fish and heard nothing but the crash of the surf and mine own song beseeching the fish into my hands. When I surfaced I heard it, that flute, that haunting music, so alien and compelling to me that mine own heart overflowed to hear it. I bobbed in the swells like a black swan, listening, letting the fish in my hand swim free, unharmed. This time, I didn’t have to search for my musician, for he sat not twenty yards away from me, upon the rocky outcropping where I’d left my clothes.
Surprise robbed me of action. His song had taken mine own into it, weaving immortal music into a mortal tune, imbuing my music with mortal life. I swam slowly to shore, standing when my feet touched the rocky strand. He did not run nor still his song as I walked towards him. He could not have mistaken me for what I was though I wore nothing more than the sun shining on my wet skin. Yet he showed no fear of me, and that surprised me most of all.
His song enticed me to sing. The song flowed simple and true from his flute, the rough quality somehow inviting me to embellish the tune. Our songs reached for each other in plain, unadorned unison and then we entwined our notes together in complex harmony. I sang his music back to him as he took my notes and crafted them into his own melody, extending the phrasing but keeping its pattern. What we made was greater than it had ever been before, alone.
Alas, our song ended too soon. So strong for so long, but at the last he wavered. He knew death comes to mortals who bate the fae. His final notes grew breathy and faltered, unsure and then gone. I captured those last notes, coaxed life from them anew, and I, alone, sent them soaring aloft, allowing the song to come to rest a few minutes later, ending like a breeze stills late on a summer’s day.
He reached for an oiled cloth close at hand and wrapped his flute up against the salt spray, then set it aside, atop the pile of my clothes. He stood, a full foot taller than me, my necklace of swan feathers held casually in his hand. I looked up at him, searched his face, but could not understand the play of expressions there.
“Will you kill me now, dread lady?” he asked.
“Such is the ancient penalty,” I replied. Alas, curiosity is not a human vice only. “Why?”
He smiled then, a beautiful smile. I felt hope and longing beam down on me as if from some happy sun. “Might I know your name?” he asked.
That brought him up short, but then he grinned. My heart’s rhythm faltered and I returned his smile.
“Might I know what to call you?”
I bobbed my head, acknowledging the point. “Call me Brenna.”
“I am Doran. Have you enjoyed my music?”
I thought I’d lie to him, to begrudge him even that consolation before I took his life in forfeit. Yet when I spoke, I told the truth. “Yes. Very much. But,” I said, stopping his next words. “I did not enjoy this chase.”
“Ah, but I did.”
I suppressed a laugh. The audacity! “Why should I not kill you for even that?”
“Why? Because you have never met my like before, not in all your long, unending life.”
When I realized he was right, I did laugh, in pure joy. Such a sound had not been heard in that valley in all the years I’d made it my home.
Days went by, and then weeks, and I discovered delight in Doran’s company. He threw himself headlong into his short life as he had thrown his feelings into his music. His passion pounded at the walls of my caution, his life’s fire burned hot against my heart. Doran’s touch made my skin sing, and our music filled the valley with glad song.
The seasons changed and came around again, yet he stayed with me. Humans call fae fickle, and yet our dalliances can last millennia. It is the fate of those who die to move quickly from love to loss to love again and I waited for him to grow tired of me. I knew I would not kill him or even blur his memories whenever he chose to leave our valley. When that day came I would watch him leave and go back to the life I’d charted through many centuries. I told him so one day.
“Leave? I will never!” He grasped my hands. I felt the heat of our lovemaking still in him, but a cold sweat sheened his skin. “Tell me you don’t want me to leave.”
I smiled, shook my head. “No, I don’t want you to leave. But why do you stay?”
He stood up then, pacing across the little meadow in which we lay. So intent was I on watching the sun play upon his bare skin, I missed the beginning of his story.
“. . . this woman I loved with all my heart and soul. She loved me back, I know she did. Despite her pledge to me, despite her ‘forevers’ that I was fool enough to believe, she left me. She wasn’t strong enough – her love wasn’t strong enough – and now she has gone where I can’t follow.” He fell silent, his gaze not seeing the wondrous meadow around us but sometime in the years behind him.
“That flute was to have been hers on our wedding day. I shaped the wood, carved it, rubbed it smooth, all for her. But she left it behind to languish. I wandered for weeks, months perhaps. I don’t know. I came to this valley by accident, but when I heard your song I knew you fae, for no human sings so. Your song was like a breeze, like a flight of birds, like the fall of rain. I knew that if I could win your heart you would never leave me like she did. If I didn’t, then I would die and know no more.” He stopped, knelt at my side. “You love me, don’t you? Can this woman of the fae love me – a simple mortal – as this simple mortal loves this woman of the fae?”
In the depths of my heart, I wondered: did I love Doran? For, by Lilith’s breasts, he was no fae! No fae grew to anger as quickly, nor forgave as readily. Could I endure the hot flame of his passionate life so close to the cool water of mine own? No fae ever saw each sunrise as a day reborn, for we have never thought of night as death. Could I lay down next to him at night, wondering if he would never see the next dawn?
I stood, looking away from him and down into the valley below, the valley I’d called my solitary home for so long. “I’ve lived alone since your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother was a mewling babe. Until you came, I didn’t know I was cold, for there was no one to touch me. I didn’t know I was silent, for there was no one to hear me. I do love you, Doran.”
He took my hands in his own, kissing them and holding them to his chest where I felt his racing heart. “I promise you Brenna, I will never leave you.”
That comforted me, even as I knew it for a lie. No mortal knew the meaning of forever.
I felt it, despite I was across the valley when it happened. One moment, I knew his song echoed in the cove like the waves upon the shore. And then, an aching silence. A terrible, horrible silence, more still than ever the silence before he came to my valley. I started up, out of the thicket where I hunted and began to race towards the home we’d built of wood and wattle. But I stopped short, realizing that without his voice, his song, I had no idea where he was. Birding. He’d gone to hunt the seabirds upon the bluffs. I raced towards the cove.
Death! Death dared hunt within my demesne. I found Doran broken and bleeding upon the rocks of our cove, fallen from the bluff above. Blood, so much blood, flowed out, from cuts many and deep, staining the stones a brilliant crimson. One leg bent at an unnatural angle while his breathing came ragged and harsh from a rib piercing his lung. But breathe he did, fighting a fight I will never face.
Did forever end so soon? Death is the natural outcome of mortal life, and precious few find death in peaceful sleep. More often, Death seeks mortals out with bloody wounds and searing anguish, stilling their songs. No mortals song goes on forever, built as they are measure by measure until the final coda fades to silence. Had I heard the last notes of Doran’s song?
Doran awoke, a momentary opening of eyes glazed with pain. No words could he speak, but I heard him nonetheless, the faint vibration of his song reaching out to twine with mine. It was in my power to shield him from Death, take him behind the veil and keep him there, making forever real, making his song last, measure by measure, stanza by stanza, until the uttermost days.
I picked him up and stepped through to the fae realm where few mortals ever go and fewer still ever leave. There, empowered by my home, I sang his injured flesh whole and secured his fast fleeting life into his body. When his breathing grew easy, when his leg lay straight and true, when his many wounds closed over new flesh, then I sat back, soaked in sweat and shaking with exhaustion. My strength of will and of body kept Doran from another kind of forever, one that I could not share with him. My strength . . . glad was I that it had been enough. It had been a close thing.
He slept, for I made him quiet with my song, the better to heal. I gazed upon him as I had not done for many a year. The cinder-black hair on his head and body had begun to burn to ash, lines spanned his eyes, and veins roped across his hands. When had age stolen upon him? I lay down next to him, too exhausted to even eat, but my plan was firm in my mind. Doran would be safe, held within faerie, even if I had to alter the very Realm to do it.
There are places on the earth, fertile and rich, filled with all the wonders of the land and sky, that lie close to faerie. Some mortals sense it: when they come upon such a magical place they stand in awe and breathe in the air rich in life and song. They know that place is special, part of the mortal world and yet not, even if they don’t know how. Until that day, my valley was such a place and to nudge it, just a bit, from the mortal world to the fae realm fell well within the reach of my recovered powers.
I brought him to our home, to our cottage by the streamside, and left him there asleep. Gathering my power around me, I reached out and tore through the veil. I pushed the boundary up the hillside and down the length of the stream until it reached the ocean. A shimmer descended upon the heights of the valley and a little way out to sea, a curtain that marked the boundary. We were now safe behind the veil of faerie.
The valley looked the same as before, but now all was safe within faerie, safe from Time’s touch. Seasons we would have, and food and daylight and nightime. But nurtured by the realm’s magic, Doran would no longer age. Age is a thing of the mortal world, where every life’s song is measured, cut into stanzas, wrapped by a coda until the song falls silent. My healing of Doran had changed his song’s measure, removed the coda that had defined the limit to his life. He would live here, not fae but no longer quite human, forever.
When he awoke, hale again, I told him what I had done.
“Promise me you will never cross that boundary, no matter what. Promise me.”
“I can never again cross over to the world?”
I shook my head. “To do so, now, would be your death. You no longer have need for the human world. All that you could possibly want is here, within this valley.”
He looked up the hillside to where the veil shimmered and glistened in the morning light. I wondered if I had done ill. “I told you before you could leave, but I no longer thought you would want to.”
He shook his head, as violently as he could, given how weakened he was. “No, Brenna! Not that. It is just that I had heard the stories and never thought I would be spirited out of the world and into faerie. But, you’re right,” he said, and took me in his arms. “ I give you my vow, Brenna. I’ll stay in this valley with you forever.” Fool that I was, with forever within my reach, I believed him utterly.
Doran played his flute for me, the rough homespun music an earthy voice within the faerie realm. He played often, gifting me with his music and I would sing for him and with him. We made music together, and walked our valley, and made love, and so passed many years beyond the veil.
Our idyll was not always idyllic. A love born of passion can not escape its heritage, not and be love still. We discovered over the course of years where we fit together and where we differed. His body fit to mine as if made just for me, while my sense of the land enabled his fiery heart to grow calm and restive within the unchanging veil.
But where we differed! The arguments could range for days, set down and picked up again until resolution or retreat was achieved. One such argument never found answer: the shape of music. I tried to teach him true music: the twitter of the birds, the sighing of the wind, the unending and changeable murmur of the water in the stream. Music should spill across the land, without beginning or end, as much a part of the land as snowfall or sunrise.
When Doran walked beneath the fruit trees that lined the slope of our valley or gathered wood, he would sing songs. Human songs – with words – as regular in structure as a human home. His voice wasn’t unpleasant, but he was no fae and those songs rung oddly to my ears. They never changed: he wore through a thousand suits of cloth and never once wove a song anew. He used words to impart meaning, the notes simply in support of words. I didn’t understand. If mortals would sing, they should sing. If they wished to speak, they should speak. Humans try to do both at once, failing at both. I listened, but didn’t hear.
One day I told him I carried a child within me. He delighted in my growing belly, in my new shape. I’d never chosen to conceive before and so found every day a new and amazing experience, if not always pleasant or easy. I never asked if he wanted a son. It simply didn’t occur to me: in the way of the fae, I chose to have a daughter first, a lovely fae child. Beitris claimed her mortal heritage in her lusty cries and ringing laughter, her fae blood by her calm perception and a soul woven of music. We watched her grow into a child whose avid curiosity was so much like her father’s I laughed to watch them together. Doran doted on his daughter and guided her early steps with a loving and firm hand.
As Beitris grew, her fae heritage showed more and more. She sang before she spoke, her song echoing mine, and yet as distinct as she was from me. I heard her sing her secret name early on and tried to call Doran’s attention to it. But humans don’t hear music that way. Few mortals have ever been able to name our true names because they can’t hear the music that comprises our souls. Doran listened and didn’t hear, and yet he adored his fae daughter, more than life itself.
Beitris loved listening to her father play his flute. As a child, she would sit enraptured, following his fingers across the holes, the purse of his lips, the puff of his breath. When I hummed along with him, she clapped in delight and tried to mimic my music, her unerring ear finding new harmonies to add. As she grew, the three of us would often sit by hearth in winter and make music together, or out under the stars in summer. Our little valley echoed with music, spontaneous as rain showers and as beneficial to our growth and lives.
Beitris loved her father’s wordsongs as I never could. She would sing them back to her father as she watched him at the wood pile or as he carried her beneath the trees. His patience, as he taught her the words and the sequences of notes, astounded me. My fae daughter struggled to keep notes and words stitched together like an embroidered cloth, but she wished so to please her human da. Eventually, they reached a sort of compromise, for he would sing the songs as he always had while she added harmonies and harmonics, granting weight and worth to the music that it lacked as a human song. Doran would shake his head, stubbornly singing the song as he always had sung it before, while Beitris truly sang.
When she grew old enough, I took Beitris to meet the Queen. Children are prized by the fae, and the Queen delighted in meeting each and every one. Even a mortal’s daughter, although not the mortal father. The Queen – as most fae – thought little of our mortal cousins and so Beitris’ heritage would be overlooked, but not the man himself. So, I took our daughter, alone, to cement her fae heritage within her. I realized when we returned some months later that Doran thought it time she begin to know her human heritage as well. Alas, that his lessons took hold so.
Doran told her stories of his family, of his life before he met me. Beitris listened, rapt as any child would be at near-mythical stories of the long ago. The mortal world fascinated her, enthralled her. Repelled her. She heard his stories of babes dying of disease, men hacked in war, women torn apart in childbirth, and she clung to me.
“But da!” she screamed. “They died.”
“Hush, my little one,” I told her. “You’ve nothing to fear of human death.”
Doran’s eyes grew distant, and pain creased those fine lines around his eyes that could never be erased. His rough hands swept through hair salted with gray, and Beitris looked from him to me. My skin is smooth, my hair black as a raven’s wing, and always has been. I think that Beitris saw this then, saw the ungentle marks of Time upon her father while I had me none. Doran sighed, touched his child on the head, and standing, he walked away from us, up the hill to where the veil glimmered in the moonlight.
Days passed, and months, and Doran invited Beitris to play his flute. She tried – at first. She shaped her mouth around the crude wooden tool and gamefully made the notes. He tried to teach her the songs much prized by his family, those fixed and regular things shaped out of music stitched together. Her love for him was great, for even in that she made the attempt. When making music of her own, she shaped the notes as well as could be on that blunt piece of wood. But when she tried to force her musical soul to crouch within the structure of his ‘songs’ well, that came so much harder for her. At that, Doran would sigh, gently take the flute back from her and tell her to sing like a good fae girl. Inevitably he would leave us to walk upon the hillsides.
I came upon him after one such lessoning. He walked and played and gazed through the veil to where the human world mourned just a few feet away. He didn’t know I watched, my movements as quiet and mysterious as his had been all those years ago. I saw him reach towards the veil and then pull back, his hand curled into a fist, safe. How many times had he reached towards the world lying just beyond his grasp?
We, the three of us, walked in the gentle light of an autumn day. Even in faerie, girls grow to women and Beitris had become a fine fae woman. Tall, with her father’s intense curiosity and my slim features, she would not stay within our valley for many more years.
The fruit trees along the ridge had given up their bounty to us some time before. Now the leaves had begun to turn in the crisp and cool air. Doran handed Beitris the flute and she began to play it. He asked her to play his favorite song, and she made the attempt. By the third verse, she could no longer bear the ill-fitting form and she flew free, the lovely sound surpassing any notes Doran had ever played.
“No! That isn’t how the song goes!” he chided.
“But da, that’s how it should go. Why do you want me to always play the same notes?”
“Because, that’s how the song is played!”
“That’s silly,” Beitris declared. “No fae makes music like that.”
“No, no fae would.” His low voice flared, long kindled resentment alight with frustration. “But humans do. That is a human song. You are my daughter as well as Brenna’s. Is there no spark of humanity in you?”
“By Lilith’s tits, I hope not!” Beitris cried out.
“Do you, now?” he asked. His voice was quiet, low, a rumble like thunder heard from afar.
Beitris blanched, her head hung low. “I’m sorry, da,” Beitris said.
“Well, I’m human. And that is a human song. Have you never listened to it?”
“In truth, da, I’ve not paid heed in many years. It’s always the same. ”
She didn’t have a response to that. He took her face in his hand. “Humans die. I’ve told you so, but you don’t understand it. We don’t have memories like the fae. We pass down what we know to our children through stories and songs.” He stood up then, resolution stealing into his eyes. “Can you play that song back to me?”
“But da, you do it so much better.”
“What if I wasn’t here to sing it? I’m human. What if I die?”
“You will not!” I said, too frightened to let this continue. “That can’t happen.” You promised, I thought, but didn’t say aloud.
Doran’s eyes filled with pain and he snatched the flute from his daughter’s hands. “Listen, my daughter. And watch. Learn what it means to be human. Learn from me what I had hoped my stories and songs would teach you.” He began playing the flute, the notes echoing throughout the valley. He played one of his family’s favorite songs, one with words and Beitris, frightened of her father’s mood, sang along with his playing. He began to walk, and we all walked with him. I held Beitris’ hand while she sang his words and I sang a counterpoint to the song. Doran’s harsh emotion flowed through his music, the notes sounding as fiery as anything I had heard from him since we first met. Beitris sang those old lyrics and I, perhaps for the first time in a hundred years, listened. This time I heard. The words, stitched into that mournful and melancholy and powerful tune, sang of death in a way only humans could conceive. Beitris sang those words of farewell and leave-taking, painful and hopeful all at once.
Doran stopped, turned to face us, his eyes caressing each of us in turn. I noticed then – too late! – the veil shimmering so close. He stepped backwards, into that glimmering curtain. I reached forward, my shouted cry of “No!” lost amidst my daughter’s screams. The final notes of the flute cut off as the weight of centuries fell upon him in an instant, turning him to dust that fell scattered upon the mortal land. I stumbled as if a bracing wind blew no more, feeling for the next note that never came, the musical phrase left incomplete, as the flute tumbled to the earth just beyond the veil.
Beitris was a child, I don’t blame her. No, Doran bears the responsibility, save for that share I take to myself. How could I have lived and loved a human for so long, loving what made him human, and not see that it was important that he be human?
The flute is once again in my keeping. When Beitris first chose the man with whom she would build a home, I had given the flute to her as a gift from her long-dead father. She accepted it gladly and played it for her new mate, playing even those songs her father had taught her. But after only a few score of years she brought it back to me for safekeeping, until she should chose again. This has happened time and again over the centuries, as she pledges her love and her life, binding herself to another with song, only to return the flute to me in the end. Fae though she is, she chooses to love only mortals.
I don’t know how she endures the betrayal.
© David O. Engelstad, all rights reserved.