England would change massively in the next thousand years, but some things would remain the same forever, and one of those was the whispering sound oak leaves made in a soft spring breeze. Things that didn’t change were particularly comforting to Del. The world was spinning around and around in her head all the time, and sometimes when she looked at the old forests and green fields she would see automobiles that weren’t there yet and cities made of concrete where now there were only simple homes of wood. That was why she liked this particular big oak tree. She could hear it sighing and singing, and the leaves sounded like little silver bells, if the bells had been made of leafy things.
That was why she had climbed up, up, up into its branches and was staring up into the stars overhead. She was giggling because the stars looked like Dream’s eyes, and his eyes really were rather silly, though she expected he wouldn’t like to hear anyone say that. She had different eyes herself, a pretty blue one and a pretty green one. She knew because she had looked in the mirror and seen them, but that didn’t mean she trusted the mirror. Her eyes might really be garlic-colored, or maybe the color of a sneeze, or the color of the sound of a lizard baking on a rock. Spin, spin, spin, and Del leaned back on the branch and laughed for a while until she was lonely.
“You will get hurt if you keep doing that,” said a voice below her, and she glanced down towards it but couldn’t see anything because it was too dark.
“Is there anyone attached to the voice, or is the voice out walking by itself?” she asked, her words rising and falling like tides in the ocean.
There was a rather long pause before the voice said, “I am called Drogyn.”
“That’s a funny name,” said Delirium, “but it’s quite a proper one for a voice with no person attached. All my family have names that start with d-d-d. They’re the prettiest.”
“I see,” said the voice named Drogyn. “And what is your name?”
Delirium looked up into the sky and bit her lip, then started to cry.
“I forget,” she said finally. “I used to have another name, I think, but I forget things sometimes, and sometimes I can’t forget even though I want to.”
She thought she heard the voice named Drogyn mutter something that sounded like “Too much mead,” but she wasn’t sure.
“Can you come down from there,” the voice asked, “or would you prefer it if I came up and helped you down. I think you may fall if you stay there too long.”
“Oh, I won’t fall if I stay,” she said quickly. “If I fall, it will mean I won’t have stayed.”
“Yes, well, I suppose that is true,” he said, “but if you do fall, you are liable to be sorely hurt.”
“Okay,” she said, “if you say so, I should prolly come down then.”
Delirium started to scrabble down from the branch, but it was a little confusing in the dark, and she got herself lost more than once. Finally, she heard the rough noise of someone climbing up the tree, and soon she saw a man with shoulder-length dark hair clinging to one of the branches.
“Did you come up to fall down too?” she asked him.
“No,” he replied. “I came to try to aid you in coming back down more softly.”
“That’s nice,” she said absently, looking up at the stars again. “Do you have a brother with eyes full of stars too?”
“I haven’t any brother, at least that I know of,” he said as he cautiously came closer to the branch where she was.
“I have three and a half,” she said proudly.
“How can you have half a brother?” he said.
“Because I have two and a half sisters,” she said as though this were simple sense.
“Oh. Of course,” he said, and as he came closer he got his first good look at the damsel he was attempting to rescue.
The lady in question looked to be maybe sixteen years old, but he’d never seen a stranger appearing person, though perhaps the moonlight was doing odd things to her. She appeared to be wearing a coat of some kind, but not like anything he had seen before. It flickered dimly in the moonlight, and he caught glimpses of shadowy pink, green, pale blue, and yellow. Patchwork, perhaps? Beneath it there was a skirt far shorter than decency allowed, for her knees were entirely bare, and great black boots were on her feet. At the moment her face was twisted away from him, but she seemed to have a quantity of reddish hair. He rather liked redheads.
“Can you give me your hand?” he asked her, stretching his arm towards her.
“I don’t want to get married,” she said, frowning and turning to look at him. “I don’t know you, but you sort of sound like that voice that was around here before that didn’t have a body.”
“No, I mean can you reach my hand,” he said, choosing to ignore the last half of her statement.
“Oh. I think so,” she said, reaching towards him until he was able to grasp her fingers carefully.
“There now. Easy does it,” he said as he gently guided her towards the trunk. “We shall be down in a moment.”
“You’re nice,” she said. “I think I like you.”
“I am glad,” he said as she mounted the trunk.
He had come to the conclusion that she was either very drunk or a motley fool, possibly both. He came behind her as she started to climb down, sandwiching her body between him and the tree so she couldn’t easily fall. When their feet finally touched soft grass again, he was rather startled by what he saw.
It was almost as though she were a completely different girl. She was still as young as he had thought, and her clothes were still a whirlwind of colors, but the skirt now trailed to her ankles, though there were several rents in it that went up to her thighs. The coat had changed as well, looking as though it were made of some strange, coarse blue fabric that he had not seen before, and there were bits of metal on it that glinted brightly. Her hair was still red, though oddly he thought he saw a dab of sky blue in it here and there, but while one half of it curled somewhat wildly over her shoulders, the other half was cut very short. As though in keeping with her half and half appearance, one of her eyes appeared to be a particularly sparkly blue and the other a highly unusual shade of green. She smiled up at him, and in spite of her strange appearance, he couldn’t help finding her charming, even pretty.
“Thanks,” she said. “It’s a nice tree, but it’s awful big. Umm, can I go now?”
“Of course,” he said, stepping back from her. “However, I should caution you; this is not the safest place for an unaccompanied lady.”
“No,” she said firmly. “That’s in Chicago, because it isn’t there yet.”
He didn’t smell any mead on her at all. She must be a bit simple, he decided. He’d gotten in trouble before for being a touch too gallant, but it itched his conscience to think of her wandering around at night alone.
“Yes, well, be that as it may, would you be willing to stay with me tonight and allow you to give you my protection?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, her face pouting. “Sometimes bad things happen when I talk to strangers.”
“I shant let anything bad happen to you,” he said, though he couldn’t help wondering if perhaps she might not be willing to do a bit more than chat with him, mind unhinged or no.
“No, I mean to them,” she said.
“I think I will be quite safe,” he said, trying to hide a grin.
“Hey!” she said suddenly, her face lighting up. “Are you Drogyn? Cause that would mean you do have a body, which is nice, because being a voice with no body would be pretty lonely, wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose it would at that,” he said. “Yes, I am Drogyn, at your service.”
“That’s nice,” she said, then sat down in the grass, her legs sticking out in front of her. Her feet were now barefoot, though he didn’t remember her ever removing the black boots he could have sworn she was wearing in the branches. “Do you like orange juice?”
“I don’t believe I have ever had that,” he said, moving to sit a bit closer to her. “Do you?”
“Uh-huh,” she said, nodding. “It tastes like laughing.”
“That is very interesting,” he said, moving closer yet.
“I say lots of interesting things, like ‘twitter’ and ‘skippy’ and ‘defenestration’ and sometimes the word that means your heart goes pitter-pat until it doesn’t, but I forget what that’s called,” she said, tugging at the sleeve on her dress. He could have sworn she had been wearing a coat, but it was most definitely a dress now. “Are we going to stay here all night?”
“If you like,” he said, bringing one arm around her, “or we can stop at a hut down the road a bit and spend the evening in some comfort with a cask of ale and a roaring fire and a soft bed of deer hides. Would you like that?”
She twisted her face towards him and frowned. “Is it your hut?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m a duke, and that is my hunting hut.”
The only problem with this was it was a lie. He was a minstrel and storyteller in the duke’s house, and he knew for a fact that the hut was unoccupied tonight as the duke was busily drinking himself into oblivion and was most likely already passed out in his own home.
“Okay,” said the girl, standing up. “Can I have some ale? I’ve never had that before, and I’m kinda thirsty.”
“You may indeed,” he said, pulling her a bit closer yet. “But first, I could use refreshment myself. Will you kiss me?”
“What?” she asked, turning towards him again in confusion. “Oh, you mean smoosh our mouths together and make wet smacky noises?”
“Basically, yes,” he said, sighing.
“Okay, but I haven’t done that before,” she said, then reached up, grabbed him behind the neck, and pressed her lips on his with much more force than he’d expected. There was a good deal more of her tongue involved than he would have thought possible, and though he had thought it was the right side of her hair that was short, he found as he reached around her to bring her up against him that it was her left instead. “How was that?”
He shook his head to clear it, then gave her a roguish smile. “A wonderful appetizer to what I hope will be a banquet worthy of a king.”
“You’re not a king. You’re just a duke,” she said, frowning.
“Actually, Del, he isn’t either,” said a woman who came out of the darkness.
She was dressed had to toe in black, and the effect against the night almost made it look as though her head and hands were floating on their own. He practically fell over at how drawn he was to her. She was exquisite.
“He said he’s a duke,” the girl said, her voice annoyed.
“I just paid the duke a visit,” said the other woman, who strode up to them and took the girl by the hand to lead her a few paces away. “He choked on a leg of mutton.”
The girl stared accusingly at him.
“You don’t have a mutton leg,” she said severely, “and my sister wouldn’t lie to me because she’s nice, and now I think maybe you’re not nice even though you did help me out of the tree and made smacky noises with my mouth.”
The darker woman looked towards him and lifted an eyebrow.
“He did what now?” she asked.
“I was stuck in a tree, and he helped me down and he kissed me and he was taking me to his hunting hut for ale and a fire and big bed with deer in it because he was the duke but he’s not the duke so I’m sort of confused and kind of mad too,” she said in a breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling very embarrassed. “I simply wanted to enjoy your sister’s company and…”
“Yes, I know exactly how much you wanted her ‘company,’” the woman said giving him a freezing look.
“I don’t like when people lie, and you shouldn’t do it!” the girl screamed, stamping her foot… which now had a boot on it. “So you won’t lie anymore, ever! No matter what anyone asks you, you have to tell the truth!”
It was difficult to explain the change that happened to him when she spoke those words, but there was absolutely no question in his mind that he had suddenly become completely incapable of lying. His eyes widened in horror, and the girl began to laugh hysterically.
“Did you want to do bad things with me?” she asked him, grinning.
“Yes,” he ground out, attempting to keep his mouth shut and failing.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” she said, continuing to giggle.
“Not exactly pretty, but you’re interesting to look at and rather strange,” he said against his will. “I would have bedded you happily enough.”
“And what about my sister?” she said, pointing to the woman in black.
“She’s the most unbelievably beautiful creature I’ve ever seen,” he admitted at once.
“How come you’re always the beautiful one and I’m just interesting?” the girl said, wrinkling her nose towards the woman.
“Because you’re dressed strangely and have odd hair and seem quite insane, and she’s like something out of my deepest dreams,” he said immediately.
The girl shot him an angry look, but her sister put a hand on her shoulder.
“You’re the one who made him tell the truth,” she said, giving her an admonishing look.
“I know,” she said, stubbing her toe at the earth. She was wearing sandals now.
“Oh, Del, what am I going to do with you?” she asked, shaking her head.
“I have no idea,” he said, already shrugging in apology.
Both of them turned to look at Drogyn, the older one’s face more than a bit perplexed.
“If I let you go, you’re going to be dead inside of a few days because you’re not going to be able to keep your mouth shut,” she said. “That means I’ll be seeing you again.”
He nodded, almost afraid to open his mouth.
“I’m going to give you a choice,” she said. “You can either die now or live a long time and die later. Which one would you like to do?”
“Live a long time,” he said immediately.
“Well, it happens that this particular oak tree isn’t what it appears to be. It’s a passageway into the Deeper Well where a lot of beings I’ve met in the past are kept,” she said calmly. “The guardian died last night, and there needs to be a new one. Do you think you can keep an eye on things for me?”
“I think I am capable of that,” he said.
“Good,” she said, smiling. “Well, that solves that problem. I’ll still see you eventually, of course, but until then you’ll just have to promise to stay here and keep things under control. Will you do that?”
“I promise to stay here and keep things under control,” he said.
“Somehow, I believe you,” she said, smiling.
With a tap, she opened a door in the trunk of the tree, and he went inside. The trunk closed behind him with a loud click.
“Del, we need to have another little talk about strangers,” Death said as she led her sister from the forest.
“I know,” she said with a sigh, looking backwards. “He had nice squishy lips.”
Death laughed quietly as she threw her arm around her sister’s shoulders and launched for what was probably the thousandth time into an explanation of why mortals could be problematic for the Endless.