When Arthur was just a babe he would crawl into his nursemaids lap, tuck his head under her arm, and listen to her soft voice as she weaved magical tales into the candle light.
His favorite nursemaid was Josephine who grew up in the country side as a young girl and in her old age moved to the fortress walls of the castle. She was Arthur’s nursemaid from the time he was two until she passed away quietly one winter morning when Arthur had just turned eleven. Arthur had already trained himself not to cry by the time he was six, but when the serving girl Claire whispered the news into his ear at breakfast Arthur ran to his secret spot in the alcove and sobbed for hours.
Josephine had a true gift for storytelling. Her words strung together to form breathtaking imagery of victorious knights, fierce monsters, and dazzling scenery that had Arthur gasping in awe and demanding just one more tale before bedtime. She would often smile after pretending to be affronted by the tiny child’s demands and then lower her voice as the two became lost in another world.
His favorite stories were always about the Fae. It was common knowledge that they existed in a land that humans could not easy venture to, but when the Fae so desired they could travel to the human realm and cause all sorts of trickery. Hundreds of years ago both species lived among each other, however, distrust soon arose and it became safer for the two kinds to live apart.
Faes were creatures of magic. In Josephine’s stories they were beautiful people that lived in harmony with nature. They could speak with the animals and control the flora with a swish of a long delicate hand. The old paintings that Arthur once snuck a peak at in the castle library depicted the Fae as tall, thin creatures with glowing eyes and strange markings that swirled and curved all over their bodies in beautiful patterns. Some were said to have devilish horns or traits of wild animals. A few had even been rumored to have massive wings on their back that could lift them high in the air.
In Josephine’s stories the Fae were powerful and mischievous people that often used their magic to test the questing knight or play a joke on an unsuspecting king. There weren’t cruel by nature, but to anger a Fae meant a great deal of misfortune.
Once, Arthur had asked Josephine how often the Fae came to visit the human world. She hummed for a moment and wrinkled her brow. “They come more often than people may think. They love their tricks, but they share one powerful desire with humans that neither can ever really ignore.”
Arthur chubby little hands grasped her shawl tighter and his eyes pleaded for Josephine to continue.
“What do we have in common? What?”
Josephine had smiled and placed her spotted hands over Arthur’s. “My dear, they look for treasure.”
When Arthur was five years old he was allowed for the first time to leave the castle walls and accompany his father for the first hunt of the season. The night before, Arthur had nearly thrown up from being so nervous that he’d make a mistake and never be allowed outside again. It took hours to fall asleep and he had to stop himself from nodding off at the breakfast table that morning. By the time he was situated on top a horse in front of Sir Obrin, Arthur was bouncing with excitement and nerves. He had his gray cloak wrapped tightly around him and he vibrated so much in his boots that Sir Obrin had to hold him in place the entire journey. He didn’t think Sir Obrin minded since the knight kept trying to mask his chuckles over the jittering boy behind ill-disguised coughs.
It was an excellent day for hunting, but much to Arthur’s disappointment once the hunting party had made past the tree line of the forest, King Uther ordered the group to halt and instructed Sir Obrin and Sir Thomas to stay behind with Arthur. The young boy wanted to start a fuss. It wasn’t fair! He was meant to join the knights and his father on his first day outside the castle. However, tears and whining would only bring shouting from Uther and Arthur had long since learned to keep his mouth shut if he wanted to remain on his father’s good side. Uther had never hit Arthur, but he knew how to twist words until they were sharp points and just as deadly. If Arthur wanted his father to smile and pat him on the head at the end of the day then the little boy would have to remain silent and listen to his father’s instructions.
With the rest of the party heading into the forest to hunt game, Arthur was forced to remain behind with his two guards and be given his first lesson in tracking. Arthur’s determination to make his father proud had him completely focusing on his lesson in spotting the signs of animal presence that Sir Thomas dutifully explained. He listened studiously to every word and jumped in excitement when Sir Obrin put a finger to his lips and let Arthur hold the small dagger the knight kept under his tunic. Sir Thomas gave his fellow knight a disapproving glare, but later showed Arthur how to correctly hold the knife and the proper way to wield it.
The small party shared a large lunch of meat pies and afterward, Arthur was finally allowed to explore the green belt, as long as he stayed in sight. He practiced with the knife, now bestowed upon by Sir Obrin, and using his new skills discovered an animal trail leading through some stones and up a near tree. He followed them until he reached the tree's base where the animal seemed to have vanished. Looking around he tried to hear any sound that might indicate that there was something nearby, but a pout formed on his face when all he saw was Sir Obrin napping on his back in the distance and Sir Thomas carving a figurine for his daughter back home.
Arthur turned back to the tree and by chance looked up through the towering branches.
That’s when he saw it for the first time.
The child that stared back at Arthur was definitely not human. Its eyes were a vibrant green and when it tilted its head in a curious manner a flash of gold swirled within the irises. The Fae’s skin was a milky white, almost translucent against the sun's rays. A dark mop of loose tendrils framed its narrow face, the pointed tips of its ears peeking out just enough for Arthur to catch the twinkling of gold attached. Long fingers wrapped around the branch as the Fae crouched down. It leaned forward, gazing unabashedly at the little prince, a thin smile gracing its lips.
Arthur’s mouth fell open in a ridiculous fashion, giving him the appearance of a gaping fish. His little legs were frozen on the spot as he continued to stare at the creature leering down at him. He wanted to call out, but as a prince, it was imperative to be polite, especially to Fae, even if the being in the tree didn't appear much older than himself. The wise old Josephine's voice echoed his in head that Fae can live centuries without aging a day.
Arthur tried to form some kind of sound that would resemble a greeting, but all that came out is an admittedly shy murmur of “P-pretty.”
The Fae looked immensely pleased at the boy’s words. sitting back on the brand and preening. Arthur’s face flushed a dark red.
The Fae gave Arthur a toothy smile, showing off a full set of teeth far more pointed and sharper than any human's. It placed an elegant finger to its lips, asking for a silent promise of secrecy. Then it vanished.
Arthur turned his head rapidly back and forth, looking for evidence that he hadn't simply dreamed up the Fae sitting high in the tree. He had his hands on the truck and his foot positioned in an attempt to climb up to investigate further when Sir Thomas called him back. His father had returned from the hunt and Arthur was to return to the castle immediately.
Uther gave Arthur a wide smile when the two were reunited, in a good mood due to a successful hunting voyage. Uther demanded that Arthur ride back on his steed. Arthur was overjoyed.
Arthur remained quiet through the whole journey, listening to his father speak on the importance of a good hunt for the wellbeing of the people. Usually he hung on his father's every word, but today he kept drifting back to the earlier encounter with the Fae.
Arthur felt giddy with excitement at the thought of finally seeing one of his favorite creatures from his nightly stories. He couldn’t wait to curl up in Josephine’s lap and tell her everything.
When he was sent to bed that night, after Uther had called for a small feast to celebrate the hunting party’s success, Arthur rushed to his room and settled himself next to Josephine’s chair.
She arrived a few minutes later, raising an eyebrow at the sight of the prince looking wide awake, practically vibrating with energy.
Josephine made her way across the room and lowered herself into the chair, prompting Arthur to climb up to join her. She listened patiently to the little prince who launched immediately into the events of the day and didn't say a word until Arthur had run out of breath as well as words.
“I’m not surprised.” Josephine chuckled at the gasping boy in her lap. “Fae are often seen by children when they visit our world. It was bound to happen to such a curious boy.”
“Why could I see him?” The question came with the occasional pant as Arthur tried calming his rapidly beating heart.
“Well young sire, when Fae come to our world they often wear a glamour that hides them from humans. However, the glamour is weak against the innocence of children and sometimes the Fae can be seen. Of course, a Fae can make themselves visible to any they so desire, but once someone grows into an adult, the ability to see through the Fae’s magic is lost.”
Arthur’s blue eyes widened in realization, “I’ll lose the ability to see them?” He asked, devastated. It was a terrible feeling, learning that he had the chance to see these fantastic being only to have that power taken from him so soon. The small prince wanted to wail at the injustice.
The nursemaid held the upset little boy and did her best to comfort him. “Oh Arthur, it's best that you can’t see them as you grow older.” Hearing this, the prince snapped his head up, jutting out his lower lip with teary eyes. She continued. “The Fae know that human children can see through their basic glamour and never caused them any harm, but an adult that can see them is something very rare and very powerful.”
“Powerful?” Arthur asked, wiping at his face.
Josephine nodded her head. “It's said that if a human continues to see the Fae after childhood, then that human possesses a very powerful gift. A gift the Faes covet. You see, if a human is found immune to the Fae’s magic then it's believed they hold within themselves a special kind of magic, one extremely rare and valuable. The Fae will stop at nothing to obtain a human with this gift.”
Arthur lets out a small sound of understanding, “The treasure.”
“Yes, my dear boy. If you can see the Fae when you older; you must not tell anyone.” Josephine looked imploringly down at her charge.
He made a cross on his heart, a promise to his favorite nursemaid that he understood her silent request. Still curious though, Arthur couldn't help but ask. “What happens when they find these people?” He already knows the answer.
She let out a sigh. “They take them to their world and they are never seen again.”
Arthur spent the rest of his childhood sneaking out of the castle and venturing into the forest as often as he could. He didn’t want to waste what precious time he had to see the magical world that seeped into the human side. He spent many seasons exploring the forests, springs, and hillsides that surrounded Camelot in hopes of spotting a flicker of magic.
He was very successful in the quest, soon taking to bring a smuggled notebook he swiped from Gregory Mammoth’s archives. On each occasion he caught a glimpse, Arthur would fill in pages upon pages of drawings and notes. The first few years he documented seeing clusters of tiny fairies collecting dewdrops, a six-pointed nose mole digging a new burrow, a pack of griflings flying overhead, and on one dangerous occasion, had to outrun a troll he'd frightened when accidentally stepping on a branch. Through it all, Arthur tried not to think about when he would lose his sight of the magical world, but he was determined to hold on to it for as long as he could. The only regret during his time observing all the magical creatures was he never again saw another Fae.
More pages filled up as the years went by.
During a fishing trip when he was twelve, Arthur saw a group of water nymphs playing in the shallows. They splashed him and he splashed right back.
On his fourteenth birthday Arthur was allowed to lead his first hunt. When returning, with a single pheasant as his prize, the prince observed a dozen or so hobgoblins carrying back spoils from a successful raid. He steered clear, knowing full well how violent those particular creatures got.
When Arthur was fifteenth he came across a brownie that was stuck in one of the mouse traps laid about the castle. He helped the poor thing out and in exchange for a raspberry tart from the kitchens the brownie mended Arthur’s favorite pair of riding boots.
In his spare time, when he wasn’t at lessons or forced to make an appearance at court, Arthur was deep into the old tomes to discover more about the magical world. King Uther at first discovery of his hobby was alarmed and commanded Arthur to cease such foolishness at once. It would not be becoming of a future king to read about make-believe and the equally ridiculous. Despite Arthur's arguments, it was Gaius, the court medical examiner and the closest person to Arthur once Josephine had passed, that convinced Uther of the benefits of knowing the old myths. It took a bit of encouragement, but once Uther stopped forbidding Arthur his magical study, Gaius produced some of his own texts and was a fountain of information that Arthur frequently used.
By his seventeenth summer, it had become clear to Arthur that he might be what Josephine had feared. He could still see the magical creatures that lived around the castle and likely always would.
It was the brownie, who insisted on being called Callum, who became Arthur’s confidant in magical matters. Callum taught Arthur a few tricks to keep his sight a secret from other magical beings and regularly helped the prince out of a few close calls. As Callum put it, word spread fast in the magical society and a prince, soon to reach full adulthood, with the ability to still see would reach the Fae lightning fast. Callum had taken to traveling with Arthur on numerous occasions, insisting that he was doing so only for the adventure, but they both knew that the aging brownie was very fond of his prince.
The greatest test of Arthur’s capability to remain hidden came the following summer when King Uther announced to the court that he and the soon to be crowned prince would be attending the solstice festival hosted by the kingdom of Nemeth.
Arthur had never been fond of these lavish gatherings where the kings made an appearance only to increase their own reputation. His only comfort came with the promise that he would spend time with Princess Mithian who while intelligent and beautiful, also shared his interest in the magical world.
The King further announced that they would bring about a large caravan of knights, tradesmen, and a few entertainers to accompany them to the festival. The entire event would be held over two weeks and it was assumed representatives from all the major kingdoms and the most important landholders would be in attendance. The kingdom of Camelot would go for two reasons: to show off its prosperity and the talent of its knights who would all participate in the festival games.
After his speech, Uther had taken Arthur aside to remind the prince how deeply his behavior would affect Camelot and more importantly the throne. It wasn’t anything Arthur had never heard before, but like the dutiful son he molded himself to be, he swore to remain respectful and honorable during the entire visit.
When he was finally able to slip back to his own chambers, Arthur immediately called for Callum to share the news. The tiny brownie was busy mending a tattered washcloth and didn’t bother to look up while answering. “I’d better go with you this time." The brownie said. "There have been whispers that the Fae court may make an appearance. There’s going to be a lot of trouble, especially for foolish blonde princes who get doe-eyed at a few sparkles.”
A was meant more teasing than a harsh jab, but Arthur's cheeks heated at the truth behind the words. He did get a bit misty-eyed at even a smallest hint of magic. Callum once had to bite down hard on his thumb to get him to stop staring at an elk spirit grazing in the fields near the knight training grounds. Brownies had particularly sharp teeth.
Settling in for the night, Arthur felt reassured knowing Callum will be with him these next few weeks. Especially with the possibility of seeing a Fae again.
Sleep took time reaching the prince. He finally drifted out thinking of pretty green eyes.
The trek to Nemeth lasted four long days in the summer heat. Arthur desperately wished his father hadn’t insisted that the knights be in full apparel. He didn’t care how important it was they put forth a strong image when it felt like his flesh had melted off and was swimming around in his chainmail. Disgusting.
Just passed midday the peaks of the gray stone towers of Nemeth castle came into view above the tree line. Most of the caravan was exhausted, even King Uther looked a bit like an overly ripe tomato with a nasty grimace stuck on its face. However, once they passed through the gates every knight held their head up high and all the King's discomfort fell away to look every inch the perfect royal he was.
Arthur would be perfectly content with just not falling off his horse and passing out in the dirt.
He painted his court-approved ‘charming’ smile on as the horns blew, announcing the arrival of Camelot's King. The courtyard was already bustling with motion and people were flitting about setting up tents for the festivities the next day. Arthur tried to pick out a few familiar faces in the crowd, discreetly tapping his side bag where Callum lay snoozing away. He got a sharp kick in the side, telling him Callum got the message, very displeased about being woken up.
Rolling his eyes at the brownie's antics, the prince's gaze landed on Mithian standing on the marble steps, waiting with her father to greet the visiting royalty. Catching Arthur's eyes, Mithian gave a small wave and beamed. Arthur smiled back and tried to sit up a bit straighter as he brought his horse to a stop in front of King Rodor.
“Uther Pendragon, King of Camelot. We offer you our most respectful greetings and are delighted to have you in attendance for our solstice festival. I look forward to your knights’ performance in the tournament. Please follow…”
Already dismounting his mare, Arthur drowned out the overly polite and political greetings among the two kings. He would have to learn the delicate art in great detail after he was named crown prince, but for now he could get away with practiced bows and perfectly constructed statements.
It was Mithian that tapped him on the shoulder when he handed his reigns to the awaiting stable boy. Arthur will forever deny that he didn’t squeak and spin around dramatically to the princess.
“Arthur! It’s wonderful to see you.”
“My lady. It’s been over a year.” He went for a short bow that earned him a swap on his shoulder. Mithian always hated the expected formality when they were such close friends. Behind closed doors, Arthur agreed with the sentiment wholeheartedly, but since they were in the public eye, it was only proper for Arthur to take the hand that smacked him and place a quick kiss in the center. He looked up from his fringe to meet a rather amused expression. Mithian quickly tugged his arm and led him away from the unpacking caravan to the tents in the distance. They rushed along busy workmen and servants setting up different stations to be open come morning. It wasn’t until the two young royals were at the end of the long row of brightly colored marquees that Mithian dropped Arthur’s hand and started whispering breathlessly.
“They're here! They’re here! Oh Arthur, can you believe it? The Fae will be at the festival. I’m so excited I could barely sleep last night.”
Mithian continued to bounce in front of him as Arthur tried to process the information just given to him.
He scrambled to ask for clarification. Surely he misheard. “How do you know Mithian? Can you see past their magic?” The last part was whispered.
“Of course not. I haven’t seen anything since I was old enough to ride a horse.” The last part was spoken bitterly and Arthur felt the regular swell of regret rise up in his stomach. He dearly wanted to share his secret with Mithian, knowing that she of all people would find great joy in his ability. However, Callum vehemently rejected such an idea, so Arthur kept silent in front of his friend.
“That pretty princess may share your love of the magical realm, but does she value your power above the possibility of having her own? Fae will do anything for a human like you Arthur. They’ll even offer magic as a reward. Everyone can be bought. Some just have higher prices.”
Turning his thoughts back to the gleeful princess in front of him, Arthur attempted to lighten the mood, “Alright, no need for insults. How do you know?”
Mithian’s eyes widened in delight, “Father received a sealed letter from the Fae court itself! They wanted to make their attendance known. They’ll be here in a few days and listen to this. Father has agreed to let them lead the tournament games! You’ll be participating in games that the Fae have created. Isn’t that wonderful?”
A wave of dread washed over Arthur, for years he'd searched of another glimpse of the Fae, sought them out even, but for so many to congregate together here? Now? How could he possibly keep his secret?
He shouldn't even risk it by competing in the games, but as prince of Camelot he had no choice. Uther would kill him before the Fae even got a chance.
“That is glorious news, my lady.” His overly polite tone must have confused Mithian who was now sending him worried looks. “I must take my leave now. I have to help the others set up our kingdom’s tents and father is expecting me. Excuse me. Good day to you.”
Arthur marched away as if he had a rod stuck somewhere very uncomfortable, feeling like a complete prat for running away. He would make it up to Mithian after he survived the festival. Safely making it to Camelot's tent, Arthur spent the rest of the day keeping his mind off of Mithian’s words by helping the others set up and unpack the weaponry, Uther insisted on bringing half the armory in a show of Camelot's prowess. At some point, Callum crawled out of the side bag and stationed himself on Arthur’s shoulder the whole time. He tried to reassure his fretting prince that they would figure out a way to make it through the upcoming weeks together.
Arthur desperately wanted to believe him.
Trying to fall sleep in his assigned chambers was impossible. The obnoxiously large Nemeth coat of arms mocked the canopy bed from its position on the wall. Seriously, who needs to devote an entire wall to a quite frankly ugly banner? The prince huffed and smothered a pillow over his face. He really needed to get some sleep or he'd be useless tomorrow.
Arthur lifted the pillow off and turned to peer at the dresser to the right of the bed where a bundle of shirts has been artfully arranged for Callum’s sleeping quarters. The brownie was snoring away as usual, but in his defense, he did stay up three extra candle marks to calm Arthur down enough to stop pacing the chambers.
There were too many worries bouncing around Arthur's head for a proper rest. For the millionth time that night, he wondered again whether anyone would take notice if the prince of Camelot slipped away in the night.
Stupid. Of course they would. Father would hunt his ass down, drag him back, and probably offer him up hog-tied straight to the Fae. Arthur could already see his father regaling the tragic tale of his useless son turned sacrifice to the honorable Fae because he was just too stupid to live.
He groaned again, how was he supposed to survive the rest of the festival? One slip up and he’d be off to the magical realm to be put on display or paraded like a little puppet for amusement.
Frustrated and exhausted the young prince curled up into the blankets, squeezing his eyes shut. He hated feeling hopeless. All his life he loved the gift of sight and he’d been careful for so long. Maybe...maybe the story was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t so rare for a human to have the sight or maybe the Fae didn’t actually care if they could be seen.
In fact, the stories always stressed that children were never taken because even the Fae had rules. He may have just been knighted, but in many eyes he was still a child. Yes! That’s it. Arthur was still young, practically a baby, especially to a Fae who live for centuries without so much batting an eye. Their age perception had to be faulty.
Hah! I’m okay. I’m safe.
Arthur spent the next hour nearly convincing himself that there is nothing to worry about. As his eyelids fluttered and his limbs grew heavy with sleep, he almost got himself to believe.
“Careful with the ropes! I don’t need yer arm to fall off before the merchandise is unloaded.”
Arthur ducked out of the way of the teetering page just as the poor fellow fell to the ground. The merchant woman overseeing the set up started squawking her displeasure at the unconscious boy. All the while the tent flaps waved wildly in the breeze. Arthur had been wandering the maze of tents for half an hour looking for the knight’s tent marked with Camelot’s gold dragon, he'd only succeeded in getting more lost in the sea of bustling people.
All day individuals from the far reaches of the realm have been arriving and setting up their wares. The festival began later that night with the summer feast and already the crowds are buzzing with news that the Fae court would be in attendance. Arthur wore a tight smile and tried to match the enthusiasm of each peasant that stops him in search of more information on the matter.
It was ridiculous how intrigued the crowd was considering every tale involving the Fae made it clear to never engage them in any capacity. Fae loved to mess with humans and with a gathering of this stature, Arthur shuddered at what the Fae have in store.
“Sire!” The familiar voice of his fellow knight roused Arthur from his thoughts. He turned to see Sir Kay waving enthusiastically from the other side of the field. Picking up the pace the prince hurried over to his friend.
“Sir Kay, how are the preparations going?”
Wrapping an arm around the prince’s shoulder, Kay pulled Arthur away from the crowd. “Fine. Fine. Everything is up and ready for tonight. I’ll say this is going to be one amazing event.”
“Yes. I do beli-“ Arthur started with the usual formalities only to be cut off by Kay continuing his own conversation. The young knight was one of Arthur’s oldest friends. As they were close in age and Kay’s father held a very powerful estate, Uther allowed the boys to play together as children. However, while Kay had proved himself a very capable knight of Camelot, he had never quite learned when to keep his mouth shut, something that both aggravated and amused the older knights.
“The amount of food they have in there is unbelievable! We are going to be rolling around like stuck pigs at the end of the night my friend. Ah! Have you seen the weaponry from the north? We need to find that booth again. There is a dagger on display that I must get my hands on. That reminds me I ran into –“
Arthur’s attention was already wandering from Kay’s rambling when his eyes landed on Mithian in the distance accompanied by her ladies in waiting. She appeared to be directing them on the proper placement of some flower arrangement, massive things that Arthur had only ever seen during grand weddings or a coronation. He took a moment to admire her charming gleefulness, watching as she inspected each stem with intense scrutiny.
The sharp grip on his right shoulder jerks him away from observing Mithian, who had just noticed Arthur and was making her way over.
“Will you take a look at that?” Kay screamed in Arthur’s ear as he pointed to a group by the ribbon merchant. “Gods, even the wenches are top notch. I think a little summer romance is in store for me tonight!”
“Arthur. I was looking for you.” Mithian set her skirts down, stopping beside the two men. Arthur rubbed his abused ear, torn on whether to give his full attention to the princess or join the discovery of his friend’s newest paramour.
“Ah, yes. Hello Princess Mithian….Umm. Kay which wen- …err… lady are you referring?”
Kay shoved Arthur with his elbow, lowering his voice to a suggestive tone. “That one with the fancy dress.” He points again. “She’s looking this way now.”
Both Mithian and Arthur follow his extended hand to the lady in question.
“She is definitely a beauty. I may have some competition for the dance.” Mithian laughed good-naturedly as she subtly jabs Kay in the back with a finger. “Show some chivalry sir knight. That is a lady you point to and a lady you will treat her as.”
Arthur doesn’t hear them continue to bicker. He’s too busy staring at the person next to the ribbon stand. They are looking back with just as much interest. Suddenly, their lips tilt upward, presenting Arthur with a wide smile. The prince stared dumbly back as the lithe creature spun on their heels, sending over a wink and then disappearing into the crowd.
“You lucky dog!” Kay thumped Arthur’s back. Mithian simply shook her head.
Arthur couldn't even form words at the moment.
Because that had definitely not been a human.
That was a Fae.
And that Fae was definitely not a lady.
That was a man in a dress.