The autumn when Thomas turned fourteen had been unseasonably warm, the sunlight on Samhain Eve casting fluttering shadows through rowan trees garbed in green and gold. Mother had sent him to the edge of the deep woods to pick late blackberries, and the thrill of venturing near the edge of Faery enticed him to agree to the woman's work, never mind that Father thought him too old for it. Besides, Thomas was certain that Father didn't know about his favorite glen, where the brambles always seemed thicker and greener. In spring, the decaying ground blossomed with velvet mushrooms; in autumn, with plump sweet berries that burst like blood on his fingers.
Crickets hummed about him, and something that sounded like the patter of flowing water drifted through the thickets, though Thomas knew of no stream that passed through the woods. That was the way of living near Faery - distant drums and flute on summer nights, the scent of sweet smoke in the wind - and the village accepted it, for all that Mother and Father forbade him from entering Their realm itself. Today, though, the full moon seemed to throb in his blood, infusing him with reckless curiosity; and after all, hadn't Father said that he was a man now? Thomas closed his eyes and listened for the faraway rustling, then resolutely set foot in that direction. He'd only go to the edge of Their realm, no further, he told himself.
Each step rustled in grass and weeds faded to brown, and thorn tendrils clung to Thomas's legs as he passed through them, but he knew that the edge of Their land wasn't far. Just over the fallen oak, and through the break in the thickets - there. As Thomas stepped out into the glade, amber light washed over him, deep and thick as if the very sunbeams had aged a hundred years, but the air was what arrested his movement. The breeze smelled like crackling leaves and icy water, a thousand times purer than his village's aromas, so vivid that Thomas felt he'd never breathed until that moment. He dropped his basket to the forest floor, and felt strangely as if he were about to cry.
"Hello there," said a voice right by Thomas's ear.
Behind him stood the most beautiful young man that Thomas had ever seen - no, he corrected himself with a thrill of excitement, the youth had to be one of the fairies. Who else would be standing outside at this time of year, clad only in ragged skins, with hair that naught but the wind had ever combed? The youth smiled at him cockily, belying the distant sadness in his eyes. "They said someone would come, but I wish you'd not delayed so long. Listen," he said, nodding at the lengthening shadows, "we haven't much time. You're here of your own free will?"
"Ye- yes," Thomas said. He hadn't thought anyone would know he was coming, but the priest had told him stories of all the witchcraft They could do, so perhaps -
As the youth pressed his lips to Thomas's cheek, cutting off his train of thought, Thomas heard a whispered I'm sorry . One hand rested on his shoulder and the other stroked lightly down his back, the near-caress sending a shiver down Thomas's spine. Finally, his fingers wrapped around Thomas's hand, and he stepped away, tugging him toward the far edge of the glen, then further, deeper into the woods, the rushing of water growing louder and louder.
By the time that the last glimmer of sunlight disappeared below the horizon, Thomas had forgotten his mother's name.
Though the two travelled in near-darkness, the full moon barely peeping through the forest canopy, Thomas's guide walked with a sure step, brushing aside branches and helping Thomas across unseen hillocks and fallen tree limbs. Where are we going? Thomas thought of asking, and What's your name?, but he'd heard the tales enough times to know that any answer he'd get would be a lie or a riddle. Soon they reached the river that Thomas had heard, though when he waded across at the shallows, the water felt blood-warm and thick. Once he set foot on the other side, he saw firelight through the trees.
They reached the clearing quickly, the youth pulled Thomas in front of him and into the light. The liquid murmur went silent. All around shone torchlight and strange faces, but all he could see was the slender girl, smaller than Thomas himself, standing in their midst. "You are welcome here," she said, raising her arms in greeting, and the glen moved again; lithe nut-brown dancers spun and wove around the central bonfire. The girl's eyes flickered over to the youth beside him and she nodded dismissively, so that he left Thomas standing alone.
Whenever Thomas tried to look her in the eye, he had the peculiar sensation of seeing flickers of her face reflected at the edge of his vision; her features never changed, but his impression of them kept twisting, dancing from a wide-eyed ingenue to a sultry lass to a serene woman. She cupped Thomas's chin in her hand and tilted his face upward, looking searchingly at his features and nodding finally in approval. "A fine warrior you'll become for us. Have you lain with a woman?"
"No - not really," he said, coloring a bit.
She looked around until her eyes rested on one of the dancers, a girl with jet-black hair whirling like flames to the rhythm. "Come here," she said.
"She'll keep you company this night, for I have an errand and a meeting with one who will not brook tardiness. Wait for me." She turned lightly and beckoned to the rest of the gathering, and they followed her out the side of the glen, leaving the torches behind and processing in moonlight. Before Thomas could blink, the circle of trees stood empty save him and the dancing girl; he breathed what felt like his first breath since approaching them.
"Please, miss, who is she?"
The girl's eyes flickered with laughter. "She is our queen, and yours too. But come; the moon has risen, and the time is too late for words."
She raised one slender finger and traced Thomas's collarbone, sliding it up the lines of his suddenly-dry throat, and all doubts or questions abandoned him.
They returned in the still of night, quieter than they had left; Thomas woke to the touch of the queen. She lay beside him on the autumn leaves, propped up on one elbow, and caressed each plane and angle of his body with unhurried hands.
"You are our new harvest king," she told him at the first blush of dawn, and kissed him on the lips. "Your seed will bring fertile seed to the land; your sweat will call down the rain. No one, human or Faery, will be denied you."
"What happened to the other boy, the one who brought me here?"
"That year has passed. You need not think upon him." She paused. "Did the humans give you a name?"
"Remember it no more."
In the following days that turned into years, he never slept under a roof made by human hands. During the warmer months, the fairies slept on a bed of leaves and primroses, and the sun and rain tanned him a fey cherry-brown. When frost hardened the earth, they followed the hares and foxes underground, warming the ancient labyrinths with fire and dance. By the time spring returned, the caverns hummed with sweat and fur-musk and sex-magic, a secret seed swelling with life, poised to burst from its husk.
Sometimes, the Fairy Queen passed the winter with him at her side, gaily teaching him the dances: drum-beat and pan-pipes by day, taut skin and moist lips by night. Other winters he saw her hardly at all, but he had no lack of activity; all his companions delighted to show him feverish new secrets of pleasure. As they lay together in wearied satiation, they told him the secrets of their people: stories of ancient queens and knights and battles, songs of love sweet and treacherous. He learned the duties of the harvest king, who stood watch at the sacred grove for his seven-year reign, demanding a human toll from trespassers and bringing life to the land through his own vitality. From Beltane to Samhain, though, the tales ceased, and his kin left him to take pleasure in the humans. Their life, measured in swift uncertain years, gave the earth more vitality than the Old Ones could ever provide.
Seven years passed, each one merrier than the one before, and he began to forget what it was like to live in the world of blacksmiths and breeches and names. When the first summer blackberries of his seventh year began to ripen, a human lass visited his grove. From his hiding place, he could see the perspiration dampening her fine dress and plastering her braided blonde hair to her temples. Her sweat-damp bosom gleamed in the hot sun.
He waited to see where she'd turn - some lasses realized they'd come to far and darted back to the safety of the village; others plucked a flower or branch in innocence; others, sent by a dare or a proud foolhardiness, would uproot their flowers and look around expectantly. The steps of the dance varied, but the song never ceased.
This one glanced about, her eyes wide but fierce as a mother doe. "Hello? Tam Lin? Is anyone here?" She muttered what could only be a curse under her breath, then strode to the nearest patch of flowers and plucked one blossom, and another.
He smiled to himself and dropped down from his tree-branch, landing lightly. "Lady, pull no more. You've stolen from my realm, and all who take must leave a token behind."
"And ye'll take a maidenhead - is that true?"
"Aye, and with pleasure, from one as fair as you," he said. "Not all offer such a gift as freely, though."
"Not all are due to be bartered like a prize mare to their father's knights, either. My true love is perfect but poor, and he'll have me when the lords abandon their claims," she said, and her lips thinned. "I'd hardly expect one of your kind to understand love, though. Do you wish me to lie on the grass, or will it be up against a tree?"
Rather than answer, he stepped around her and began untying the laces of her dress at the back, placing reassuring kisses on the nape of her neck. A lass shaking with fear or anger would do no good to the earth. "Does your love know you've come here?"
"He'd have stopped me if I told him; my father's wrath will be too great for him to risk complicity. He'll not argue with my results, though."
"So much fury in a maiden so lovely," he said, sliding his arms around her unbound waist and up her stomach to cup her breasts. So close now, his torso pressed up behind hers, he could feel her flesh stiffen and then slowly, cautiously begin to relax.
Her fingertips, when they were finally coaxed into reciprocation, still smelled of uprooted flowers, dirty and perfumed and raw green.
Weeks passed, the blackberries ripened and rotted, and one day he could smell the sharp odor of ashes and ice that signaled the coming of Samhain. At the full moon, he knew, a new harvest king would be chosen, to keep the forest ever-young, and he welcomed the promise of change. He could feel age sinking through his bones, like a lightning-struck tree hollowed at the core.
Still, a duty bound one until discharged, so he kept watch at the grove as brown leaves fell and buried the dead flowers. Then, for the first time in seven years, a maid he recognized entered the grove - the golden-haired lass.
"You've come again," he said, confused, without waiting her to pluck a branch. "I thought that you -"
"I've no wish for your games," she said through gritted teeth. "I only came back because I heard I could find special herbs here. So take your damned token and let me pick them." She pulled a small kerchief from her bosom and flung it at him, then bent to her knees and began digging through the fallen leaves to the plants below.
He watched curiously as she searched, speaking only when she pulled up a thick-lobed weed with a look of triumph in her eyes. "You'll not be wanting that one, lady, unless you mean to poison another. Deer that eat of it expel their young half-formed from the womb."
"Good," she said, and rose to leave.
Sudden understanding flashed in his mind, and he sprang to block her path. "You're with child."
"Not for much longer, if you'll pardon me and let me pass." He could see the slight swell beneath her dress, now, but her eyes flashed with the fury he remembered.
"And your love? Would he not be proud to father a child?"
"I'd hoped as much," said she, "but he swears he'll have no dealings with a half-fairy babe, nor with a woman who carries one. None in my father's house can blame him."
"Then he's mistaken," he smiled. "Fairies and men may lie together, but no child has ever come of such a union. 'Tis against the way of nature."
The girl's eyes narrowed. "Tam Lin, you are the only one who's ever been with me. So either I'm a fairy, or you're not, or you're a damned liar, and I know which of those I believe."
"But I'm no fairy, lass - when did I tell you otherwise? The earth calls for human seed; I'm as human as you are."
The girl stared at him. "Then return with me. My father's priest says the fairies are agents of the Devil; why would a mortal man wish to serve them?"
It took him a moment to answer - not for lack of replies, but for abundance of choices. He spoke at last, "Because I've tasted a world so ancient with being that all other truths seem as shadows."
"It's your child," she retorted. "Without a father, he'll grow up a bastard, and I a woman too shamed to leave her father's house."
"I'm sorry, love," he said, and stepped back into the safety of the clearing's thick amber sunlight. She shook her head, eyes bright and wet, and ran away.
As the autumn moon waxed, he felt himself waning, spending hours on his back on a pillow of leaves, watching the branches turn thin and bare. The fierce-hearted lass never returned, and at last came Samhain eve and a full moon rising in the sky. Another boy appeared, as he knew one would, and he marveled at the lad's innocent young face, leading him to the Queen all the same. At last, his duties fulfilled, he smiled up at the sky and breathed, feeling an exquisite exhaustion.
He joined the Queen's procession as they walked down the ancient roads, taking the place of honor at the crowd's center. All walked with practiced grace and silence, dozens of feet muted to the hum of a distant storm.
As he stepped through the crossroads, water like knives pelted across his face. He cried out in pain, falling to his knees, and felt wiry arms capture him and tug him out of the procession. A female voice spoke, clear and unhesitating. "By the power of this holy water and the cross of these roads, I, Janet of Carterhaugh, claim Tam Lin as my own. His term is passed; you have no claim upon him."
The Queen turned, and though his face seared with pain, he could still see the glorious rage shining from her eyes. "You'll not take my king."
Energy coursed through him like the wind, and he felt his flesh turn in on itself until his skin lay hard and reptilian over his long, legless body. Blood, the air sang to him, and he thrust out to drink it from the closest flesh, but, though the hands pulled him away from his food until he writhed helplessly, they never lost their grip. Another force surged through him and he writhed under its influence, feeling his flesh expand into limbs and muscle and claws, while a shaggy mane burst from his head. Still the scent of blood called him, and he stretched his neck toward its source, roaring in frustration when the arms that clutched him refused to relent. Once again the power gripped him, pressing him tighter and tighter into himself, until the pressure became too much and he felt himself bursting into flame, burning, burning his body away. As the agony became too much to bear, a wash of cold liquid flooded over him, and he knew no more.
When he woke again, still half-submerged in an icy pond, the fairy procession had vanished, and Thomas was a man again. He saw Janet standing and trembling, her fine dress charred and torn, and he began to weep.
Deep in the woods, where the air grows thick and ancient, old grandmothers tell of a grove filled with roses as red as blood. A fairy guards it, capricious and cruel, and the prettiest golden-haired maids face the most danger from his guiles. None dare venture there, lest they lose something far more precious than their costly jewelry.
Old Thomas visited the grove once, or so they say. Whatever be the truth behind that story, anyone can see that when the wind blows into the village from the forest, washing away the church's incense with perfumes of hawthorn and roses, Thomas stands at his cottage fence, very still, and cradles a necklace of dried rowan berries in his hands.