The last time Willy had seen Kasperi, he had been so chilled by the rain that the immense shivers splintering across his body had looked almost deadly. Humans were vulnerable to the cold and the patchy cloak around Kasperi’s shoulders had done little to protect him. A wild look in his eyes, fearful and righteous all at once, Kasperi had proved resolute enough to remain on his feet and hold out the gift clutched between his fingers, the deep red fur that Willy had told him would serve as payment for Kasperi’s stupid little wish. The fur from a beast that Willy had been certain would eat Kasperi alive and leave his blood all over the forest.
He does not understand how the human has managed to escape with his life - how he had not ran the whole way back to his village and stayed there until he died - but he does not fuss over it. It makes for a delightful twist to their little tale, albeit one he had not been expecting. Although it rankled on him to grant the man a victory, it remained that Willy could not go back on a bargain. He had rewarded Kasperi for his efforts and once the deal had been made had amused himself with imagining all the new ways he could make Kasperi dance.
Resting his gaze on Kasperi again, Willy seeks to have a little more fun with him.
“Oh! But it is a cold morning, and you should be clinging to the last of your plants.” Willy’s power intensified as winter approached. He enjoyed freezing the harvests left out by people foolish enough to think that the autumn air could protect them. “What brings you to my hollow, Kasperi? Do you have another request for me?”
“I do not,” Kasperi says. While Willy longs to call him out for the lie, it is true that the neediness in his eyes has been somewhat sated. Calmed. It is no longer enough to invite retribution.
Willy changes tack. “If you have not a request, then you must have a story. You know that I love stories. For your sake, it had better be a good one. Remember what will happen if you cannot make me smile.”
“I remember,” Kasperi says.
“Everybody remembers,” Willy says. “But it does not stop people from failing me. So the question remains. Are you going to fail me today?” He smiles at Kasperi, big, beautiful, and sharp. “Perhaps I will hate all your stories. Perhaps I have heard them all already. A risky thing, coming out into the woods alone when the leaves are all falling and the sun is nearly gone. I am restless. I am bored. I do not think that I am in the mood to listen to stories today.”
The challenge has been issued. Willy is gleeful waiting for the response but Kasperi is not disturbed. He does not panic and he does not rise to meet it. He’s watchful, but not like how he usually is. Usually, his eyes track Willy as he moves around the woods, the longing in his face absolutely delicious, the trepidation of being tricked, tantalisingly tempting. He’s just quiet now, watching Wily with his hands clasped in front of him. Not fluttering for him anymore.
No one reacts to Wily like this. He’s disconcerted, but then Kasperi says, “I know what you are.”
Wily feels cold in his heart. Different now. Very different now.
“I’m a child of the wood,” Wily says, warning in his voice. “I was here before you were born. I will be here after you are dead.” He thinks he will strike Kasperi for bringing this attitude to him today. He’ll turn all Kasperi’s crops into dust and he’ll take the light from the moon so Kasperi cannot find his way back.
Kasperi does not respond to Wily’s warning. He glances around the woods and makes a rueful expression, something about it falling short in his mortal mind.
“You are a long way from home,” Kasperi says, looking quite calmly at a patch of flowers. “I don’t know how you got here but you’re not where you should be. You’re away from your clan, from the others who are like you.” He reaches under his shirt collar and grasps at something there, looking momentarily solemn. He keeps ahold of his mystery trinket as he turns back to Wily. “But that does not change things. It does not change this.”
Kasperi pulls out the thing that he was grasping at and in his hand, Wily sees his golden hair, knotted and plaited into a pattern and hung on the end of a tough string.
For some reason the sight of it makes Wily’s insides clench. He wants to be away from it.
“I thought you’d treasure my hair.” Wily spits out, tapping on disdain to fuel his words. “I thought you’d put it under your pillow and go to sleep every night wishing you could be me. But you turned it into a useless trinket instead. What a waste of something beautiful. I won’t take pity on you again.”
Kasperi just stares at him, rubbing his thumb over his makeshift pendant. The lack of - well, anything - in his eyes makes Wily nervous.
“Did you come into the wood just to show me this?” Wily asks. “I don’t know why you’d think I’d care about what a human does. Your lives are not interesting to me.”
“I amused you, I think,” Kasperi replies.
Kasperi’s stoic arrogance is woefully misplaced.
“I enjoyed toiling with you,” Wily says scornfully. “I liked watching you flail as you tried to keep up with me. Always failing. Because you are human.”
“Yes,” Kasperi acknowledges, “you laughed at me often. But you still let me stay with you anyway. And you gave me this.”
Again, he holds out the pendant, fingers curled over it protectively, like he expects Wily to want his hair back. Willy might take it so he can strip the man of everything he has but he does not want that knotted mess back. If he gets it he will burn it or throw it into the water.
“That is nothing special,” Willy tells Kasperi, but rears in alarm when the man merely smiles at him, as if he knows something that Wily does not.
“You’re not a child of the wood, Wily,” Kasperi says. “You’re from the land I grew up in. You live in snow and ice, not grass and flowers. These aren’t your woods at all.”
Wily balks at that.
“Be quiet!” he cries, but cannot follow it up with anything else but clenched fists and shaking vision. Kasperi’s certainty is a better trap for Wily than any summer’s day.
“I know what you are.” Kasperi says again, still holding that damn pendant. “I grew up with stories about your kind. You are the thing that makes the ice wastes so dangerous to cross when the moon is high in the sky. You are the thing that traps travellers and kills them if they, frozen and tired, cannot sing you a tune that you enjoy. You are as cruel as you are beautiful and you do not ever give help to those you do not like. You are not a sweet child of the wood, Wily. You come from a much harsher land than this.”
“Be quiet!” Wily says again. “You know nothing of me!”
Kasperi’s words stir up something white-hot in him. Wily looks at the man (suddenly so unmistakingly foreign) and thinks that he can pull from the sky and rip him apart. The flowers in the meadow will all die from it but Kasperi will too and that is something that will satisfy Wily.
“You know nothing…” Wily repeats, curling his fingers, “and you will feel nothing…”
But when he tries to call down the storm, he finds that he cannot. The sun still shines and the birds still sing in mockery all around him.
It is nearly winter, and the land is cold, but Wily cannot touch it. Not even the baking sun could make Wily lose his power.
Kasperi stays silent as Wily pours over his hands in total disbelief.
Wily finally looks at Kasperi. “What did you do?”
“I took what I needed, and what you gave me. You cannot hurt me now.”
Wily gives Kasperi’s pendant a poisonous glance. “Is that what this thing grants you? Protection from me?”
“And more.” Kasperi says. He pauses, looking cooly thoughtful, his gaze tracing the length of Wily’s body. “There were many stories about the Zelphies when I was a child. Most warned not to trust a beautiful face that appeared after snow. But there was one story that I liked and that everyone knew.” He gives Wily a deliberate look. “The story of the King who had a Zelphie bride.”
What Kasperi uses to name him, Wily does not recognise or know. He sidesteps the word.
Kasperi continues his story. “A king of legend found that he wanted a wife and that he did not like any of the women he saw. But one day he went out into the wilds and saw a Zelphie who was beautiful and fair. The King decided that he would take her for his wife. He didn’t care that she was dangerous because he was smart and he was patient. He courted her for months, braving the cold each time, until the day came where the Zelphie was fond enough of him that she gave him a lock of her hair as a gift.”
Kasperi holds out the pendant again. This time Wily’s eyes are fixed on it.
“The King used her hair to make a charm that bound the Zelphie to him forever. A Zelphie will ordinarily kill you if you ask after their hair because of that. They have long memories. They know they cannot argue with this kind of contract."
It is hard for Wily to make sense of the story. He feels restless. He wants to go. He wants the cord in his heart to unwind and to free him from this cool-eyed human.
“You are not a king.” He spits, because he will not bow to this creature. “I take back my gift. Give it back to me.”
“No.” Kasperi says bluntly. “I want a wife to guard my door against thieves and beasts. I want a wife to sleep in my bed and take care of my home and children. I want a wife who will sing to me when I cannot sleep.”
“You cannot have me!” Wily cries.
“Can you go?” Kasperi asks him, gaze flickering to the trees. “If you can go now, I will take this necklace away and burn it. On my life I swear it.”
Wily does not trust the words of man, let alone Kasperi, but he is scared and he is desperate, so he takes the offer and he tries to run.
“… Do you see now?” Kasperi asks after a moment’s pause, during which Wily has only stared at the trees and wanted to run into them but not moved because there is a new point in his world around which he revolves, which asks for him and by which he must stay. “This is unbreakable. You cannot fight it.”
For the first time in his life, Wily wants to hide.
He closes his eyes and says, “I do not want this!” .
Kasperi shakes his head in denial. “But you gave me your hair. I didn’t even ask for it. You were the one who offered the trade.”
“It’s not fair.” Wily insists, reaching out desperately for his lock of hair and despairing when Kasperi puts it back under his shirt and drops his hand to his side. “I did not know what I was giving you!”
To that, Kasperi only shrugs.
“You would not be kind to me if you came across me out on the ice,” he replies.
There is nothing to be said then. Kasperi is pulling a defence that Wily cannot answer for. He stands tall and unmoving as Wily flounders in the grassy meadow, features as hard as stone even though he is made of flesh and blood and can die like the rest of them. His mortality did not matter now, but Wily cannot leave it alone.
Wily scrambles for a solution and can only turn back to Kasperi.
“Please give it back,” Wily begs. “I can find you a thousand precious stones. I can find you a bow that can kill any animal. I can find all the secret paths of this land and I can make you a map that shows off all of them.”
Kasperi frowns and Wily dares to tread closer, afraid enough that he does not care that he is pleading with him, Wily’s life dependent on the wishes of a man who Wily used to scare with shadows.
“Anything you want,” Wily says, coming close to Kasperi, close enough that he can see the youth in Kasperi’s face and count the coloured fletches of his eyes. “Name it and I will give it to you. Give me back my hair and I will give you the stars themselves.”
Kasperi stares at him. Wily wonders what it is like to crawl so close to the dirt your whole life and then have the moon come begging you for mercy. It must be the opposite of the rhythm beating in Wily’s heart.
Kasperi stares at him. And then he shakes his head.
“I want a wife.” He repeats.