"Oh I see." Merlin regarded Ian with new interest and not a little amusement. "You have gotten yourself in deep, haven't you? Very well, tell me what this is all about, but don't take too long at it; tea is running late now."
"Still, a matter must be started at its beginning," the Vicar replied, and Ian recognised in his mannerisms all of those little adjustments one makes before taking on a serious section of narration, especially when one is constrained to sit down throughout the proceedings. "We had, of course, made the usual arrangements to visit the Midwinter Feast; it doesn't do to miss one's seasonal obligations if one wishes to remain on speaking terms with the local court, rather than the terms of intimidation with which you may be more familiar.
When I say we, I naturally mean myself and Mrs Hubbard, and Miss Crawley; whilst I known the gentleman here for some time, he has previously shown no inclination towards such matters, and certainly not the kind of history that we have established with the small folk. It was, however, a shared occasion which we set out from. By the intricate dance of our calendars, the final Sunday before Christmas had aligned - whether fortuitously or otherwise, I cannot yet say - with the midwinter day, and I and Mrs Hubbard had attended the service and made arrangements to meet thereafter.
Although, if our friend had followed us all the way from the service, there must have been a rather damp wait in the driving rain - for the weather was distinctly appropriate, although snow would have been even more so, I suppose - for our dear friend here, and a rather hungry one too, which only goes to demonstrate exceptional restraint or great gifts of stealth in the subsequent feasting-hall.
After dinner - for we did not wish to impose too much on the fragile hospitality of our hosts, despite the obligation they would feel toward us - we headed out into the rain, suitably equipped for a journey into the woods, and found the invitations to the feast strewn about as always, although it was clear thereafter that only their regular guests were intended to find them, and the superfluity was a matter of tradition rather than expectation.
I would applaud our friend's stealth, but between the driving rain and the advancing age of my companion - Miss Crawley having arrived separately and rather earlier - I am not surprised that he went reasonably undetected, and as soon as we arrived we were rather ushered into the company of the Lord, as he had been overheard muttering about some kind of approaching power and it was hoped we might be able to tease out more of the sense of it.
While we were having little success - he would scarcely be drawn on the matter, although he did explain it as some great force searching for their festivities, and had wandered off into another of his little rants on the subject of the inaccuracies in human representation of the fair folk - at least one potential cause swiftly made itself apparent. No, not our friend here - but instead an unmistakable trumpeting, as of the Royal Guard itself!"
"Oh, the great and mighty Royal Guard of Oberon." Merlin's tone faintly dripped with sarcasm, but he gestured for the story to continue. "Do tell, are they still grubbing round with those insects that he was so proud of taming?"
"There's no need to give me that contemptuous look. When one is suitably diminished, and considering the disposition of his subjects, King Oberon and Queen Titania are still hardly a trifling power, although naturally not up to your standards, Master. The use of dragonflies as mounts and the intricate work in those miniscule brass instruments is rather a sight to modern eyes, and there was also the rather pressing concern that they did insist on coming through the roof.
Fortunately, Garumpta's hall was significantly more resilient than it appeared, and the royal mounts crashing their way through the ceiling had no particular effect on its structural integrity. There followed almost as many courtiers as there were Garumpta's subjects and revellers, and of course that despicable Puck creature that I suspect they keep around as a form of contrast, as well as to speak those truths a monarch cannot openly confess.
Oberon seemed quite upset at the low numbers in attendance, and when Garumpta mentioned we were visiting, he called us forth at once. We were reasonably polite at each other for a while as he bemoaned the fate of his people, as one does; we gave some reassurances of the protection already arranged for Garumpta's little settlement, and eventually it came to the actual reason for the visit - Garumpta's lastborn.
The poor little fellow bore many obvious marks of his elderly parentage. It was clear his father loved him and that the miserably terrified soul was doing his best to give proper respect, but before Oberon had summoned up a suitable reaction, there was Puck, right in the poor creature's face."
Merlin leaned forwards at this, an indication of attention that would likely have been imperceptible to one not familiar with using its exaggerated form for effect upon the stage.
"The odious little Puck had his fingers around the unfortunate lastborn's face as if examining his teeth, and clearly did not like what he had found. Emitting the most hideous braying laughter, he was scarcely discouraged by the King's disapproving glare - although doubtless the King could have stopped the act if he truly disapproved - and declaimed to the audience that the entire race was surely doomed."
"Back a little," Merlin commanded, waving his hand peremptorily. "What were his exact words, do you recall?"
"I believe, although it was a trying day for recollection given the subsequent events, it was along the lines of - 'Great earth, fire, air and water, is that the best you could do? The bandy-legged, pigeon-toed, pot-bellied, mush-faced Lastborn of the Firstborn. Ah we are doomed indeed.'."
Ian managed to stifle his astonishment - and amusement - only through great practice. The Vicar had reproduced the very tone of the Puck's voice, with the struggle for air around that wild uncivil laughter, in such detail that he was frankly envious - and practically transported back to the tension of that uncertain wait in the shadows while fantastic things played out before him as if on their very own stage.
"Interesting," replied Merlin, "very interesting indeed. Is this individual generally prone to invoking the elements?"
"It's not an uncommon means of cursing, but not especially, and not often in that order," admitted the Vicar. "And when the poor Lastborn looked up at him, he continued - 'High stars, on top of everything, he's cross-eyed! But… he's also male.'"
"I think that is probably quite enough recitation for one day, if we are to get to the meat of the thing," Merlin cautioned him. "Especially as we haven't heard a thing about our new friend Ian yet?"
"That follows directly," the Vicar assured him. "It was at about this point that Oberon finally intervened and drove Puck away with threats, admonishing him not to use this opportunity to begin feasting, either. Oberon is much kinder to young Mompen, but is mostly using this as a display to sell to us his true purpose - with the lastborn being incapable of breeding with his own lastborn, Puck, the only way remaining to secure a future is the old ways - the exchange."
"Which brings us to the exchange, but not to the tale of your friend," interjected Merlin impatiently.
"We will be there soon. He was still hidden in the shadows, however, while we were discussing the exchange. It was Miss Crawley that held up the proceedings for the longest time, ensuring that it would be fair on all participants, the human parents included; and finally, Oberon turned to Garumpta to obtain a volunteer.
Naturally, the fair folk all knew what it would entail; despite the wretchedness of their existence in the forest, barring misadventure it is a distinctly longer one than their changeling would be likely to experience. And as all peoples tend to, in packs, no-one wished to make the first move when another might take the burden on themselves if they waited but a moment longer.
Garumpta began to attempt to explain his people's cowardice with pleasantries, but before he could really get started, that underestimated little runt - Mompen himself - shoved his way out of the crowd and volunteered himself to do it, on the grounds that he couldn't exactly be any worse off with another choice of body."
Merlin chuckled. "I suppose he's right; any change would be an improvement for that poor monstrosity. But you'd best make jolly sure you… Hmm. Well, go on, Tom."
"Oberon was just congratulating the Lastborn on his courage when Puck ranged out of the shadows dragging our friend behind him, like he'd just caught a field-mouse. Proud as a cat with it, too, and very ready to insult the 'world of noble and honest men'. Threw him at Oberon's feet and expected some kind of reward for it.
The King did a fairly convincing line in kingly reaction, demanding to know how this had come about; Ian admitted that he had followed us and taken up one of the general invitations, and was suitably well-spoken. Obviously he had heard everything about the exchange, however, and he hadn't had the time to get into the King's good graces as we had."
"Hmm." Merlin looked meaningfully at the mark on the vicar's head, which he had curiously omitted any details of his receipt thereof from his tale.
"Then Oberon let Puck grandstand a little more, suggesting all kinds of dire fates, presumably to ensure our friend here was suitably cowed. He took especial pleasure in detailing the fates that might befall him if he was simply kept at his current diminution - becoming a bird's dinner, or a girl's new footwear accessory, or drowning in canine micturition..."
The vicar was clearly studying Merlin to see how the tale was being received; but Merlin was scarcely paying attention any longer, mild amusement covering his own thoughts.
"To his credit, James held firm enough to check the bounds of the deal that he was getting into with an insightful question - but a deal he did have to make, to get out of there in one piece. A fairly similar deal to the one you have no doubt picked out on your student here. A pledge to aid in the endeavour of the exchange - but sealed in a rather more… emphatic fashion."
"He gave it to you hot, did he?" the old man commented with a low whistle. "How did you respond to that?"
"I went home and got drunk."