Elena has a fairyland inside her chest.
“It’s not a—what do you call them? When you want—like a figure of speech, I think?”
“A metaphor?” the new girl says with a soft smile.
“Yes! It’s not… that. It’s real.”
The girl pinches her lips together, eyes crinkling at the corner with mirth. She has long brown hair in a braid and the fairy lights of the glade twinkle over it. Around them the music flows and ebbs, fluid like water, like wind and the gentle bend of grasses and leaves. A melody strange and otherworldly, a rhythm that, even after all these years (she thinks it’s been years. It has been years), is the most wonderful thing she’s ever heard. They both sway with it.
A tall fairy with skin like tree bark comes to them with a tray of drinks—flower nectar, by the whiff Elena gets. It smells sweet like a mild summer day. Overhead, the lights cling to the trees like fallen stars. They shine like crystals, make delicate spots over the girl’s cheeks.
“You know not to drink or eat, right?” Elena asks her.
“I know,” the girl says, eyes lingering on the drinks with yearning even as she shakes her head and the fairy moves on. It’s only when the fairy has disappeared in the crowd that she looks at Elena again.
“So,” she says. “Inside your chest?” Elena nods. “And we’re both in it?”
Elena laughs. “No it doesn’t!”
The girl shrugs and grins. “Let’s dance.” She takes Elena’s hand and pulls her to the center of the glade. “I’m Mithian, by the way.”
When she was a baby, the Sidhe put one of their kind inside her. For years, she had no idea it was there. She was clumsy and unrefined and it drove her nurses crazy.
“I made a very poor princess,” she says to Mithian.
It’s the third night Mithian’s been to fairyland. They are taking a brief respite from dancing, both sitting on logs on the edge of the field, under a canopy of trees which rustle gently in the spring breeze, whispering amongst them in a tree-tongue Elena can’t understand. Mithian looks up at their branches.
“You feel like you’re on the verge of understanding,” Elena tells her, eyes following the line of Mithian’s jaw, her long pale neck and the curve of her shoulders under what she calls a t-shirt. “But you can’t ever grasp it. I think they do it on purpose. They want you to think they have secrets and they’re not letting you in on them.”
Mithian’s mouth quirks and she looks at Elena. “You were a princess?”
“A long time ago. Look at you.”
Mithian’s as beautiful as any princess Elena saw when she was still one, still… awake. But she dresses in the strangest way. Humans come and go in fairyland. The Fey love pulling them in, and while they turn up their noses at their crudeness and mortality, they still can’t help their deep fascination for them. It has been a long time, though, since Elena has seen another young woman like her. She can’t remember the last time.
“Why did the Sidhe put a fairy inside you?”
“To take over my kingdom. I think. It was never very clear to me.”
But then the fairy got comfortable, found Elena’s chest cozy. Saw something there, inside of her, worth settling in.
She woke one morning and knew there was a copse of trees right there against her heart. Then green hills. A brook. A forest. A whole land growing and growing, filling up with creatures large and small. She’d feel it inside her during her days—the soft warm glow of eternal spring. Through court meetings, and dancing lessons. Through winters where she was never cold. The presence of it spurring her horse when she rode, the fairyland speaking horse-language, and Elena riding until it felt like she could fly.
And then one night she was here. Inside herself. Walking those green hills and sitting by the banks of the river to watch tiny fairies race frogs over the lilypads until it was time to wake up in her own world.
“Are you dead?” Mithian asks. Her hand brushes Elena’s in the small space between them, but she pulls back, crosses her fingers in her lap.
“I don’t think so,” Elena says. “I just didn’t wake up. I think I’ve been sleeping for a long time.” She tries and think of her father, of the castle that was her home. They’re all gone now, she knows, and she feels the ache of their loss inside her, dulled by the sweet air, the music, the glittering lights. It’s really hard to be sad in Fairyland.
“Let’s dance,” Mithian says.
They’re hiding behind a bush.
“What are we doing?” Mithian whispers.
In front of them, only the dark curve of a hill against the starlit sky. Mithian’s arm presses warm against Elena’s.
“Wait, you’ll see in a moment.”
She looks at Mithian’s profile, wants to see her expression when it happens.
Her eyes go wide, her lips part in a soft gasp of awe, her whole beautiful face filling with wonder.
The fairy court procession is cresting the hill. The fairies on their majestic horses, glowing white like the moon in the night. And at their head, the Queen. Tall and pale and beautiful, long wings at her back fluttering lightly, translucent and shiny, limned in silver. They fill the dark sky with white light. The air takes on a crisp texture, like it used to on winter mornings back in Gawant, but not cold—never cold—warm and earthy and filled with the tinkling sound of the bells sewn to the horses’ bridles.
“It’s like bloody Lord of the Rings,” Mithian whispers, and Elena has no idea what that means but she laughs all the same.
“Your face looks so stupid.”
Mithian gapes at her, gives her a shove with a ‘Hey!’ and Elena laughs some more. Mithian’s smile is wide and bright.
“Where are they going?” she asks, looking out again at the fairy court making their way over the hills.
“I love hunting.”
Mithian watches them for a while more, her hand on Elena’s knee, then she turns back to her, says, “I want to dance,” and helps her up, holding her hand all the way back to the glade.
Mithian comes back every night and Elena waits for her by the birch trees, right where the brook surges over the rocks. Together they walk hand in hand toward the music. The air is always sweet, always mild.
“It’s winter back home,” Mithian says one night.
Elena loves the library.
“I used to not want to come here,” she tells Mithian, sliding her hand over the spines of the books. The room is big but feels cozy, rows and rows and rows of books, old and new, gathered on whims—sometimes whole decades missing, while there’s a whole section filled with dozens of pulp novels Elena hasn’t dared to look at yet.
“Really? Why? This is wonderful.”
“It’s too easy to see how much time has passed.”
Mithian says nothing. She pinches her lips together, like she wants to say something but doesn’t know how, or thinks she shouldn’t. It makes Elena want to bridge the space between them and swipe her thumb over Mithian’s mouth. Tell her she can tell Elena anything.
They stare at each other for a long moment. The soft, dim lights in the room make pale brown shadows over Mithian’s skin, her brown hair looks black, and Elena’s heart beats faster, hard and loud against that first copse of trees.
“I love this one,” Mithian says, breaking their silence, showing Elena the book she picked off the shelf.
Elena snorts at the title. “They love reading about themselves.” She swallows and opens it, looks at the printing date on the inside. Hundreds of years. Hundreds.
“You okay?” Mithan touches her elbow lightly and startles her.
Elena shakes her head, takes a deep breath and hands her the book. “Read it to me?”
They settle on a low settee. Elena sits close to Mithian, knees to her chest, forehead pressing against them, and closes her eyes to listen.
“O young Mariner, You from the haven, Under the sea-cliff, You that are watching, The gray Magician, With eyes of wonder, I am Merlin, And I am dying, I am Merlin, Who follow The Gleam.”
Mithian’s voice is smooth and warm, glides over Elena and envelopes her, makes her feel safe and… solid. Here. Anchored. Her eyes feel with tears.
“More?” she says thickly, mouth against her dress. Mithian doesn’t say anything, but reaches out for Elena’s hand.
“Look how she sleeps—the Fairy Queen, so fair! Yea, but how pale! what are they? flesh and blood? Or come to take the King to Fairyland? For some do hold our Arthur cannot die, But that he passes into Fairyland."
Mithian closes the book softly after the last line, and in the silence, says, “You want to dance? I think we still have time.”
Elena tips her head back, blinks wetly at the ceiling, throat thick. “I’m an idiot.”
Mithian is cursed.
Elena hates how long it took her to realise. And how long it took her to bring it up after she realised. But she sees it now. And sees how it’s taking its toll on Mithian—the dark circles under her eyes, the tremors in her fingers when they dance. The constant dancing.
“What do you mean?” Mithian says.
Elena tugs on her own hair, bites at her lip. “I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t—I wanted to believe you were coming here because of…”
“Because of what?”
Mithian is so beautiful. But not only that, she’s funny, constantly makes Elena laugh. She’s kind and clever. She makes Elena feel… good. Real.
“Because of me,” Elena says without looking at her. They are alone by the brook and birch trees. Her birch trees. The closest to her heart. Elena regrets not having given her hand to Mithian when she got here like usual. She wishes she could be holding it now.
“I… Elena. I—do. Come here for you,” she says, but Elena’s already shaking her head.
“It’s a compulsion. You’re called. I’ve seen it before. You can’t help it.”
“And it’s—that’s why you always want to dance. That’s why—”
Elena blinks, looks up, eyes searching Mithian’s face. Mithian is smiling. She reaches out and tucks a strand of Elena’s hair behind her ear. “I’ve known for a while that… I’m not coming here out of my own free will. I do feel… compelled.” She lets her hand drop, but Elena reaches out, grabs Mithian’s fingers.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
Mithian licks her lips, opens her mouth and closes it. She looks around them, then back to Elena. “I didn’t want to break the curse and risk never seeing you again.”
Elena’s heart beats hard in her chest. The land inside her seems to vibrate somehow, to expand with a new mountain, a new clear river and waterfall. It rushes inside of her fast and with no hesitation or fear, and Elena follows after it. She surges forward and presses her mouth to Mithian’s.
Mithian makes a surprised sound, but her mouth opens under Elena’s soon enough, soft and pliable, with just a little bit of wet tongue that makes Elena shiver for the first time in the warm spring night air.
It can’t go on like this. Mithian doesn’t experience fairyland like Elena. She’s tired. It’s draining her to be out there in the world during the day, working, and up all night dancing and being with Elena.
“We should go see the Queen,” Elena says as she swipes her thumbs over the dark circles under Mithian’s eyes.
Mithian leans in and kisses her more. “One last dance.”
The Queen looks less ethereal in the dim light of the library, but no less beautiful. She wears moth wings today, her dress made of white flower petals speckled with dewdrops that reflect the yellow light of the candles.
At her feet, a human child plays with elven-carved blocks.
“Come away, O human child,” Mithian says, watching the boy. “To the Waters and the Wild.”
The Queen smiles at her, kind and dangerous all at once. “It is good to talk to you again, Elena,” she says, eyes still fixed on Mithian.
“We’ve talked before?” Elena says, but as the words cross her lips she remembers. “Oh, we have. Forgive me, your Majesty.”
The Queen shakes her head. “It’s easier to forget, I think. Your kind feels so much pain at the passing of time.”
Elena takes a shaky breath and clears her throat. “I’ve been sleeping, haven’t I?”
This time, the Queen’s smile is indulgent. Motherly. “Yes.”
Elena wants to ask her so many questions, but she knows she’s done it before, and can do it again. She has time here, but Mithian doesn’t. The boy hands the Queen one of his blocks and she takes it with with long, pale fingers. She runs them through his fair hair and he curls at her feet like a pet and goes to sleep.
“What did you really want to talk about, Elena?” the Queen says. Her wings shimmer with rainbow colours. Her skin is darker now, the white of her dress brilliant against the brown of it.
“There’s a curse on Mithian,” Elena says. “A fairy curse. A compelling one.”
The Queen turns again to Mithian and looks at her for a long moment. Mithian stays still, hands crossed in her lap and back straight. She doesn’t look away from the Queen and Elena finds her very brave. Most human can’t look this long. There’s a wildness in the Fey they aren’t prepared to see.
“Ah yes,” the Queen says. “I see it now. But it is you Elena, that compels her.”
“What?” She turns to Mithian. “I wouldn’t—I don’t—I wouldn’t do that to you, I swear.”
The Queen laughs, a crystalline sound as pure as water coming down from the mountains, cascading over rocks. “Fear not, it is merely your own sleeping curse calling to her. You cannot help it anymore than she can help answering the call.”
“How do we fix it?” Mithian asks.
The Queen’s eyes soften again. “Elena must wake up.”
There’s only one way to break Elena’s curse: she must be found in the human world and awoken by a kiss.
“I can do that,” Mithian says and Elena smiles at her. “But how do I find her?”
The Queen raises a hand, a shadow moves at the corner of Elena’s eye and then beside them is another fairy, short and stout with a bulbous nose and pointy ears, wide-set eyes like a frog’s. He hands the Queen a silver quiver.
“With these,” the Queen says, taking an arrow out. It sings when she removes it, a faint sound that must be a distant echo of the song it carries when released from a bow. “Dip the tips in Elena’s blood and they will find her. Do you know how to hunt, Human?”
“I do.” Mithian moves to take the quiver from the Queen but Elena stops her with a hand on her wrist. Nothing in Fairyland is free.
“They must be won,” the Queen says. “Since you are a hunter, perhaps a contest is in order? Can you kill the White Stag before my Hunt, I wonder?”
“No,” Elena interrupts. The Queen raises an eyebrow, but her eyes sparkle with mischief. “A race, I think. Me against a rider of your choice. If I win, Mithian gets the quiver and you promise to protect her from the compulsion, or at least forbid her entry into Fairyland so she can go on her own quest. You have nothing to lose from me waking up, you and your kingdom will endure.”
“Elena,” Mithian whispers. “I can do this.”
Elena squeezes her hand, but doesn’t look away from the Queen. “I know you can, but it’s not a fair bargain. The White Stag is a magical creature and part of Fairyland. By killing it, you would win the arrows but bind yourself to it and to this world. It’s a trick.”
The Queen shakes her shoulders in a delicate shrug and laughs. “It is in our nature,” she says without remorse. “But very well, dear Elena, for all that you have done for us, we shall do it your way. I give you my word and the word of a fairy is binding. But do not think the hunting will be easy, human, even if Elena wins, the task awaiting you could break you.”
Mithian holds on tighter.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Mithian presses closer to Elena, pillowing her head on her shoulder, hand wide and warm over Elena’s ribs.
Elena looks up at the stars.
“It’s been so long, nothing you knew… they’re all gone, Elena. Everything’s different here. You’ll hurt in the human world.”
The grass under them is soft and fragrant. Mithian’s mouth skims over her neck, and Elena holds her there, shivers at the way Mithian kisses and bites at her skin.
“It’s been long enough,” Elena says. The stars move across the sky. “I want—what do you call it? The box with the moving pictures.”
“Yes. I want that. And hamburgers. I want to remember good and bad things. This place isn’t going anywhere. It’ll be here when it’s time to come back.”
Mithian skims her ear with her lips. “If that’s what you want, I’ll give it to you.”
Elena’s horse isn’t the most graceful or beautiful, but she loves him. They are old friends and she wouldn’t choose any other to help her win this.
She doesn’t speak horse-language like the fairies do. Can’t spur him on with words of magic.
She doesn’t need to.
She bends over his neck, hands tight in his dark mane, knees and thighs tighter still over his flanks. And they fly together. They fly through the night and over the hills and towards the rising sun. The first to be touched by the golden and pink rays, light all over them.
The wind sings in her ears. It speaks of speed and flight and victory.
She gives Mithian the quiver. Carefully, she pricks all ten of her fingers on the ten arrows and coats the silver with her blood.
“If you follow them right, you’ll find me. Either way, you’re free. The Queen will keep her word.”
Her throat tightens and she looks down at her shoes, smearing blood over her skirts.
“Elena,” Mithian says. And Elena has never seen her like this, in the light of day, even more beautiful. It feels like there shouldn’t be enough space inside of her for all her bones and organs and a whole land and this—this feeling. And yet, she’s filled with it to the brim.
They kiss by the birch trees and Mithian squeezes her fingers before letting go, stepping away. “I will find you. I promise.”
Days pass. Weeks, perhaps.
She sits by the brook, feet in the clear, crystal water, idly watching a nymph comb her hair on the other bank, each strokes a rivulet of river water splashing against the pebbles on the bank.
And Mithian is kissing her.
Elena touches her lips with a trembling hand.
The first thing she sees is Mithian’s smile.
She has sweat and dirt over her forehead, blood over one cheek from a deep cut, and her eyes are wet with tears, but her smile is blinding and Elena raises a hand, touches the curve of it.
“I found you,” Mithian says, and kisses Elena’s fingertips. “I found you. I told you I would.”
Elena breathes deeply. The walls around them are made of rocks and she can hear the sea echo, waves crashing over stone. It smells like water and salt, like cold wind and winter.
Inside of her, the land expands, grows a coast, a stormy sea. And in the wall, in the rocky bones of it, a cave.
But that’s for later. Much later, when it’s time again to sleep.
“You okay?” Mithian says, brows furrowing.
Elena laughs, can feel her tears on her cheeks. Her body aches.
She lets Mithian help her sit, stand, her legs stiff and clumsy. She puts an arm over Mithian’s shoulders and walks with her to the mouth of the cave. Smiles in the bright white light of a grey winter day.