Jon’s right antennae flicked, twitching to the right. Then the left, trained in the direction of the disturbance in the air. Next, his body. Then his head, reluctantly and with great prejudice. Finally, with a miffed sound, he tore his eyes away from the cluttered miscellany littering the floor of his home. There was cataloguing to do, and the recent storms had blown all kinds of new things into Jon’s nest.
But something had disturbed the air currents, and how that Jon had been roused, he was curious. Very little disturbed him here except for the small forest spirits that crawled through the undergrowth and leapt up the trees; he’d stopped noticing them by the time he was a yearling. This was much bigger, and heavier, and clumsier; nothing else in the forest made noise like that unless it was looking to be eaten. Or to eat.
Jon, careful not to be seen, sniffed; the smell that returned to him was full of smoke and ash and something that sparked. Likely human, then, or at least normally residing in a human settlement. Not of much interest until it left, really - Jon liked collecting, not experiencing. And there was always the danger of being spotted, or swatted - both were less than ideal. Or eaten, he supposed, but whatever it was out there was using two legs and had just tripped over a branch, so probably he didn’t have to worry about that.
This one was making a strange noise, though, a kind of rhythmic click that made Jon want to vocalise in return. Nothing biological - too uniform for that. But strange enough to light the fire of Jon’s curiosity, and - well.
You know what they say about moths and flame.
The creature kept coming back .
Not every sun cycle, but more than once a moon cycle; a week, maybe? Jon didn’t know - the few tattered books he’d collected hadn’t seen fit to explain human timekeeping. It still made the same ridiculous crashing noises as it traipsed through the forest. It always sat on the same log, as far as Jon could tell - the wood was still warm, sometimes, when he went down to look for forgotten treasures, although he hadn’t found any yet. An annoyingly conscientious visitor, for Jon’s purposes. Although there was nothing to be done about the smell , apparently, bitter and unnatural. It hung about the place for hours, pulled this way and that on the air currents, and Jon hated it. And not just because you can’t put a smell in a book, Daisy .
And the strange clicking noise continued. Jon’s antennae kept twitching in that direction, and it was very irritating. Didn’t it know some people were trying to concentrate .
When it started to talk , Jon decided he’d had enough. It would be foolhardy to go as himself. If the creature really was human, as he suspected, they rarely reacted well to things like him - they’d tried to drown Sasha when she forgot to put her bone teeth in and went out with her twig ones. And if it wasn’t human, and just pretending, well - still better not to risk it.
Jon pulled his cloak tight around his shoulders, concentrated, and transformed. In his true form, the moth wings fell down his back like a two layered cloak; underwings on the bottom, main wings on top. Good for keeping warm, and warding off anything that might want to eat him, and for keeping an eye on things - magical and mundane alike. But he couldn’t fly in his true form, and he was much slower and clumsier that way. Not to mention somewhat conspicuous.
Much better to go as a moth, then. Being a moth was easy. Usually the humans didn’t even notice you, and the other things that lived in the forest just thought you were food, and Jon was quick and clever and -
“Oh, aren’t you pretty,” said the creature.
Jon hesitated mid-flight, in case the thing hadn meant him .
“Yes, I meant you,” it said, sounding amused. For a moment Jon wondered if he’d forgotten to transform after all, but no - he could feel the fine tremor of his wings and the air currents under them, lifting him up on the wind and the exhales of slowly decomposing refuse. He did a quick loop to reorientate himself.
The creature appeared to be a human, although it was often hard to tell, even up close. It had dark, coppery hair that curled riotously all over its hair, like a bramble patch. There was a star-scattering of darker pigment across every inch of visible skin. Freckles, Sasha had once explained, poking at her own face with the end of a burned stick, smudging ash. It was wearing wool, in the bright yellow of cowslip. It was also wearing a leather apron, with a big pocket and tools stashed in it. The apron seemed to be the source of that strange, acrid smell. On the log next to it was an open bag. Jon fluttered closer, and from here he could smell something else; burning tar, herbs, sorrow. And sickness, clinging in all the crevices.
“My name’s Martin, by the way,” the thing said, “since you seem to be staying.”
Jon, who had not been at all sure he was staying, settled on the far end of the log and watched. Martin, this probably-a-human, picked up two long, slim, metal sticks and -
It was those things making the insufferable clicking noise! Jon trilled and fluffed his antennae, but it was no use - the figure was definitely human after all, and couldn’t hear his irritation. Jon fluttered closer to - to - well, he wasn’t sure what , but he’d do something to make it stop. But he’d have to be careful, because the sticks were attached to some kind of string, and if he got tangled up in that… Maybe it was a net, and this human was a Collector, and Jon was about to find himself preserved and pinned to some corkboard in an office like his grandmother had always warned him about -
“Figured I’d start some more socks,” Martin continued, hands moving apparently independently from his brain, because he was watching Jon’s nervous twitching again. “Mine are more darns than sock at this point, and since Mum…” The human sighed, the movement of the sticks paused for a moment, before he swore, quietly. “Oh, damn - “
The discontent only lasted for a few seconds, before the figure on the bench took a deep breath. “I lost count,” he continued, in a much more even but wry sort of voice. “Too busy thinking instead of doing, that’s my problem, Mum says.” The human carefully counted down the near line of stitches on one needle and nodded to himself, picking back up with the rhythmic clicking.
“It throws everything out, if you miscount. Too short, or too long, or creates a hole where there shouldn’t be one.”
Martin was sure the moth he'd seen earlier was some kind of fey.
Martin brought the cleaver down; it slipped at the last moment, missing the nettle stems he was preparing and hitting the chopping board with a loud thud. He pulled the cleaver out of the chopping board and stood there, waiting, holding his breath; but there was only a snore and the sound of his mother rolling over in bed. Martin took a deep, calming breath; adjusted his grip on the cleaver, and went back to chopping.
The moth was far too big, for one thing. The one Martin had befriended had a wingspan of several inches, far bigger than any native species Martin could think of off the top of his head. He may well be misremembering, but - well. Suppose it was time to get his mother’s identification guides down. At least those markings were so very distinctive, which should make identification easier. Russet reds and warm browns, and those enormous fluffy antennae. Not to mention those eye markings, Martin was sure he’d read somewhere that insects with eyes were more likely to be fey…
There was a sharp, shrill whistle behind him. The cleaver slipped again and left another deep gauge in the chopping board. Swearing quietly and wiping his hands on his apron, Martin bustled across the small kitchen to attend to the kettle. “Shh, please be quiet, yes, I’m coming…” He picked the enormous, cast iron thing up by the handle and carried it over to the waiting pots of posies and infusions. Pouring it sent a jumbled mismatch of scents up into the air, lavender and chamomile and mint.
There was a tiny sneeze from behind the tea pots that made Martin grin. “Sorry, friend. Lots of steeping and stewing to do today, I’m afraid. I left you some tea on the doorstep.”
Martin shook his head and laughed at the sound of tiny footsteps along the skirting board. The hobgoblin had lived in the hearth for as long as Martin could remember - mending and tending in the corners, with an offering of cream off the top of milk bottles left out of an evening. His mother had mostly ignored them, but as soon as Martin had taken over more of the business, well. It seemed silly to ignore something you were living in such close quarters with. So he’d started chatting to them, in quiet undertones while his mother slept and he brewed, and now they lived happily enough side by side. Besides, it was nice to have someone to talk to as his mother got sicker and he had to take on more and more of the potion making. Tim came to visit him, sometimes, but he said the cottage smelled strange and felt even stranger, and that was fair enough, Martin supposed.
So it was just nice to have the company.
Anyway! He had a couple of hours until his mother’s next dose, and with the orders for tomorrow happily steeping away, well. Time to get those books down. The butterfly and moth guide, first - Martin rarely looked at them, and the covers creaked worryingly when he eased the dry, cracking spines open flat. He chewed on the end of his pen as he read, tapping his fingers on the notepad open in front of him. There was probably a better way to search than idly flicking through the pages, but if there was Martin didn’t know it. He’d know the moth when he saw it - and indeed he did. It practically leapt out at him.
Small emperor moth or Saturnia pavonia, Martin noted down, in his round, careful handwriting. Size large. Except the guide said the moth should have a wingspan of three inches at most - much smaller than the moth Martin had seen. But in every other respect the description was perfect, even down to the vivid blue of the eye spots on the fore and hindwings. Point one for this being a fey moth, then, if Martin could identify it perfectly except for the size. And habitat, apparently - more fond of open heathland and sand dunes than the deep, dark, dense forest that grew up all around the village.
So book of secrets, next. The lists of known fey in the area didn’t yield much. The Jones family had a changeling daughter who’d been returned to the forest when she’d been small. Martin couldn’t remember her, but he could remember the hostile whispering and his mother telling him to keep his distance. They’d moved out of the area after a while, their milk always spoiled and their fruit crop bitter. According to tradition, no-one could inhabit the house for a full generation - until the changeling child was dead, or had been reclaimed by the Court. But it was mostly just an empty house, and it was grief that hung around it like a miasma.
And the Grim, of course. Martin had seen them, patrolling the edge of the village while Martin did work that could only be done in darkness, at midnight, under a full or waning moon. And the ravens, who were an entity unto themselves.
But nothing about any moths. Which left just the theory books, which were even more ancient and crumbling than the identification guides, and dusty besides. Not much use for them once a witch gets established, especially someone who doesn’t deal much in negotiation and favour. Not that there was anything definite, but Martin wrote out the checklist anyway:
- overly large
- unnaturally curious and unafraid
- unusually intelligent
- out of place environmentally
- preternaturally beautiful
Certainly the moth had been all of those . Far bigger than any moth Martin had ever seen before, and much, much bigger than the emperor moth should be. And the moth had come over to look at him - Martin had the distinct impression of being observed . The funny little thing had flittered and fluttered all over the place, had even done a double take in mid air when Martin spoke to it. And sure, moths had to rest sometimes, but usually not at the far end of the log a human was sitting on. And there was something almost offended about way it had tugged at its antennae, running the fluffy appendages through its feet and studiously ignoring Martin’s entire existence.
Martin sighed and put the pen down. Probably it was just an entirely ordinary moth, and Martin was embarrassing himself horribly. Best to tear up the page and pretend he hadn’t just wasted two hours on a useless flight of fancy. Although… the identification guide had said that the caterpillar of the emperor moth fed on heather, and Martin had some heather honey from a connection up in Scotland, so… It wouldn’t hurt to leave some. Even if the moth was just a moth.
Anyway, best check on the -
“Coming, Mum!” Martin called back into the house and pushed his notepad aside to get back to work.
“Oh! Hello again,” Martin-the-human said, as Jon fluttered down from the branch he’d been waiting on.
The smell was different this time - the sickness was stronger, more prevalent, and drowned out the notes Jon had started to notice underneath the burning smells; paper, lanolin, sugar. It took Jon several long seconds to work out what had him so disorientated - there was none of the steady clicking he had come to expect whenever Martin wandered into this bit of the wood; Jon could just see the flat, blunted end sticking out of the side pocket of his bag. Instead, Martin was pulling a large bundle of wool out of the bag next to him, a few skeins of brights coloured wool, and retrieved a strange, mushroom-shaped wooden… thing , that usually hung from his apron ties.
Jon settled in his now-customary spot at the end of the log. Still beyond arm’s length, but - closer. The human might not leave any trinkets lying around for Jon to acquire, but he could always collect knowledge .
“I’m darning, you see?” Martin asked, holding the bundle out so Jon could see. He sounded… warm. Fond, maybe, like the creaking branches of an ancient oak in the sun. “You’re supposed to use similar colours, but I like the way this looks…”
Whoever had coloured the yarn had used several colours on a single skein - variegated, he thinks Martin called it. This one was mostly reds and yellows and browns, because those were the easiest, cheapest and most permanent with natural dyes. But there were some purples and greens too. Sasha did it, sometimes, when her flax hair started to unravel and fade, and they all spent an afternoon searching for greenwood and wild onions to dye her a new weft.
As Jon watched, the holes in Martin’s jumper slowly disappeared. They were replaced instead with little cross-hatched sunbursts of colour. Some had been little more than moth holes, barely visible - some larger rips, what had looked like a burn mark, a tear…
“There!” Martin set the last of the bundles back in the bag, patting them affectionately. “All done.” He paused for a moment, seemed to be considering Jon, where he still sat on the other end of the log. “You really are awfully pretty…” Martin said, and laughed softly at Jon’s flustered twitchering and huffing, shaking his antennae at the man and profoundly grateful that moths couldn’t blush. “I wondered if you were some kind of spirit, like my little hearth friend. I brought you some honey, either way.”
Martin rummaged around in his back and produced a small, wax stoppered jar. He broke the seal and left it on the log. So done, he hefted his bag and strode out of the clearing with a jaunty little wave.
Jon waited until Martin’s footsteps had mostly faded before approaching the jar. Better to take advantage of five-fingered dexterity, here - another brief shiver of air and Jon could use the edge of his tunic to pick up the glass and sniff cautiously at it’s contents. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, as far as Jon would tell. Just the lingering frenetics of bumblebee wings and heather blossom - Jon’s favourite, which was disconcerting but might be a coincidence. Plus a base note of hearth hobgoblin, too - very happy hobgoblin, at that.
Still, better to be safe than sorry. It was easy to hide magic and enchantments in sweet-tasting things. He tipped the honey out onto the leaves and took the little glass jar back to his hut.
Martin brought more honey the next time he came.
Jon repeated the ritual - cautious sniff, dispose of the honey, take the pot.
And the time after that. And the time after that.
The fourth time, Jon ate the honey with his fingers, scowling at the whole time at how frustratingly wonderful it tasted.
When Martin next returned to the forest, his little moth friend was already waiting for him.
“Oh, hello!” Martin said, and seated himself amongst the leaf litter, leaning back against the log with a pained groan. He stretched out his legs in front of him with another groan, massaging the cramping muscles of his thighs. He loved being a potion witch, loved helping people, and his mother had worked so hard to build up the business and make a reputation after his father had left. The least he could do was make up for all the problems he caused by helping her out, keeping the potion selling going, but -
Sometimes the long days got to him, was all.
The clearing was a nice break from everything. Warm and green and growing, with a cool breeze and dappled shade. And no-one to ask anything of Martin at all, other than the little creature that liked to share his space and peer curiously at his knitting.
Martin pulled his knitting out of his backpack, a rich purple and yellow yarn destined to be a set of fingerless gloves for Tim. He’d already sold the other three skeins to the expectant family who’d come through the week before - he’d done the dying with lavender and chamomile, and he’d snuck a quick serenity charm into the fibers as he’d wrapped the bundle in brown paper and secured it with twine. Not a strong one, and probably wouldn’t last long, but well. A new family could use all the help they could get.
The moth crept closer as Martin picked up his needles to start a new row. His hands carried on without him as he knitted; he could probably do this pattern in his sleep. It left him free to watch his moth’s slow progress towards him. Each tiny step - a foot put forward and tapped over the wood in front of him, testing and tasting, before the next one, jittery and quick. And the constant twitching of those long, fluffy antennae, the probing footsteps only pausing to run one leg carefully over the appendages, dislodging fluff and reordering ruffled fuzz. It got closer than it ever has before, hovering uncertainly at Martin’s shoulder; tapping once at the fabric of Martin’s jumper and then skittering several inches away before coming back, repeating the entire gesture, little body craning to the side in an attempt to watch Martin’s hands. At the end of the next row, Martin put down his needles and held one hand up to the moth.
It froze in place, one leg raised in mid air and one antennae folded over, giving the impression of nothing so much as a confused puppy. Martin huffed a laugh, and immediately held both hands up in mock surrender when the moth fluffed itself up indignantly.
Still laughing a little, Martin held his palm out flat to the moth again and wiggled his fingers coaxingly. “Come on, then. Since I can’t sit up there when my back hurts like this, and you can’t see from up there.”
The moth hesitated for several long moments, before hesitantly bringing one leg down onto Martin’s palm. It stayed there like that for a few still, breathless seconds before deciding to crawl onto Martin’s palm entirely, with the same careful tapping footsteps as before. With the weight of it’s enormous, fluffy body on his hand Martin could feel the pinprick points of connection where the moth’s feet were, could feel the tiny claws at the end of each foot catch against the creases and calluses of his hands as it walked. It’s wings were large enough to brush against the side of Martin’s hands; they were powdery soft against his fingertips and incredibly fragile, leaving behind smudges of grey dust. When he looked, later, there would be traces of it caught in the creases of his palm and the ridges of his fingerprints. And the moth’s body was soft as elderdown under his fingers; Martin couldn’t help but curl his hand around the moth’s abdomen protectively. The antennae flicked and tickled against the skin of the inside of his wrist, and Martin suppressed another giggle at the feeling.
Very, very slowly, Martin transferred the little moth to his knee, where it immediately scampered over to inspect the knitting - tapping its feet against the needles and the ball of yarn and the gloves themselves, leaving a fine trail of powder behind him. Maybe he’d find something else for Tim, because suddenly he was very fond of these gloves.
Inspection complete, Martin’s little friend had taken a seat on Martin’s knee and watched avidly as Martin picked up his needles to begin again.
Martin spent the rest of the afternoon like that, working steadily away at his gloves - now more complicated than he’d intended, but he had more than enough yarn and he hadn’t made anything intricate for himself in months. He hadn’t left until the sun was starting to set and cast long, creeping shadows across the mossy floor of the clearing.
(art by awkproduckions)
As he walked, swinging his bag a little, he thought about his little moth friend. Definitely not just a moth. Not that there was anything wrong with moths! They were beautiful and important contributors to the ecosystem, both as prey and pollinators, not to mention key indicator species… But! Not the point. The point was , he had definitely been right about befriending a fey. The little creature had been very interested in his knitting today, afterall, and not as a foodstuff. Usually it was only larvae that threatened his knitting, anyway, but the moth had seemed much more interested in what Martin was doing than munching holes through Martin’s new gloves.
He’d have to bring more honey, next time, and -
Martin could hear voices coming from just beyond the treeline, hidden from view by the twisting of the deer trail. Like a murmuration of starlings, many voices building up and then being abruptly shushed, every voice straining to be quiet while still being heard. It was the kind of crowd Martin dealt with a lot, as a witch - during births, during long illnesses, after a very public row or falling out or making up.
But there was no reason for there to be voices out here. If there was something wrong with the forest he’d know about it, considering he was in it. And weird things happening in the forest tended to be accompanied by a great deal more shouting and pitchforks and the stink of burning tar, not that any of it ever ended up on the trees lest they decide to get up and move around to avoid it. The only thing out that was was -
Martin set off at a dead run, body numb, crashing through the undergrowth. Bursting out from the treeline he could see them now, the crowd. Clustered around the cottage door, the garden gate, trampling down the bright yellow dandelion heads in the grass.
A figure peeled itself away from the edge of them, grave eyed and worried. "Martin!" Tim was tall, had always been tall, and Martin swayed towards him as a port in the storm. "Mate, I'm so sorry. We don't know what - someone found her outside the Robinson place, I guess she fell, but -"
Everything around Martin went fuzzy and distant, like a mistuned radio. Even Tim's worried face bled slowly out of focus. Limbs like led, Martin pushes himself through the crowd towards his own front door.
After that, Martin-the-human stopped visiting.
Jon didn’t think much of it, at first. Sometimes Martin took longer between visits, and the lingering smell of sickness was always stronger when he came back. Probably he was just taking time to recover from whatever ailed him. Not to mention the many and varied demands of his potion business; Martin had often spoken of the fiddly work of preparing, brewing, sterilising and bottling. Surely the other villagers were simply demanding a greater percentage of Martin’s time at the moment, and he didn’t have a spare minute in which to wander down to Jon’s neck of the woods. Especially if there was an illness - Martin said the medicinal ones were harder than the magical ones; with magic, intent could get you a long way, and most of the ritual was about sustaining and concentrating that intent long enough for the charm to take. With medicine, though, a potion maker had to take care to prepare everything properly, to brew it long enough and hot enough and in the right kind of pot, lest the resulting potion be ineffective - or, worse, actively harmful.
So - so maybe Martin was just busy, and couldn’t leave his potions alone long enough to come out to the woods and knit.
By the time a full moon cycle had passed and Martin still hadn’t returned, however, Jon was frustrated. It was a good thing Jon was just a moth, and not one of the more vindictive minded fey that liked to lurk in the deep shadows. Honey, company and mutual knowledge exchange were apt enough terms for the striking of a bargain. Some spirits - not Jon , obviously, but some - might read Martin’s failure to return as a snub and take offense. That the human in question didn’t realise there was even an agreement to break was irrelevant. A witch should know better.
“Ludicrous,” Jon murmured, fussing with the ephemera on his windowsill, antennae twitching in agitation and his wings trembling on his back, uneasy. Martin’s honey jars had been arranged in a neat line; they were full of raven quills and bunches of dried lavender and long hat pins, the kind dropped by forgetful and fanciful humans. He’d left a space for a fifth jar on the right, ready for Martin’s next visit.
Besides, it was just - just - it was just rude , to leave without saying anything.
With a huff, Jon swept the honey jars off the windowsill into the drawer below, listening to the clink of glass as they knocked against each other amongst the half-rotten handkerchiefs and single gloves. In their place he settled a potentially human lower mandible. He’d found it beyond the boundary of the cemetery, buried in the thick, clinging mud of the creek after a rainstorm. It felt good, the bright little flare of vindictive spite in his chest, but playing so recklessly with intent like that was dangerous - not to mention an improper use of magic. So he’s replaced the mandible with a desiccated deer skull. But he couldn’t get the whole thing to look right, now. The dried lavender stalks kept falling out of the deer’s eye sockets and spilling onto the floor.
Humans. Always more trouble than they were worth.
“I am not sulking,” Jon huffed into the crook of his elbow, in a way even he was forced to admit sounded pretty sulky. Which just made him sulk harder, so. It served Daisy right, really.
“You are.” Jon picked his head up just long enough to glare at Sasha, who was in the middle of carefully re-strapping her fingers with nettle-rope, and roundly ignored him.
“It’s not our fault your little friend stopped coming,” Daisy added, the rumble of her voice shuddering through his body like thunder when you were tucked up at home under the goose down.
“He’s not my friend,” Jon grumbled out, pressing his face back into his crossed arms. He felt her stretch behind him, arms stretched above her head and her toes curling. When she settled again, she lay herself out over his back and nuzzled her face against the side of his, careful of his antennae.
“That’s not what your smell said,” Daisy said, lightly, and huffed directly into his ear; he squawked and rolled away from her, flashing his wings are her in agitation and dignified protest. He pointedly ignored the laughter of his friends and the whispering giggles on the wind. “Or his. He liked you.”
“He thought I was a common moth,” Jon huffed, settling down against Daisy’s side again, nettled at the reminder. “Anyway, how do you know what he smelled like?” which set off another round of laughter that Jon thought was deeply unnecessary and frankly rather rude.
Across the clearing, Sasha’s head perked up. The end of her nettle-rope slipping and her pinky finger slid crooked, and she cursed, holding the end of the twisted thread between her teeth while she worked. There was a downwind across the clearing, throwing leaves into the air and sending soft tingles down Jon’s antennae and through his body. Basira’s form resolved itself in a twirl of feathers, and Jon plucked one out of the air to tuck between his cloak. Her feathers were soft, and very beautiful, an iridescent purple-blue-black, and they made the best writing instrument of any creature, magical or mundane, in the entire forest. He tried to do it surreptitiously, but she always seemed to know when he’d taken one, no matter how hard he tried.
“Sorry,” Basira said, and stooped to hold the knot in place while Sasha tied off the string. “What are we talking about?” She squinted suspiciously at Jon for a moment, and he endeavoured to look innocent; whether he succeeded or not, he didn’t know; she turned her attention immediately to Daisy.
“Jon’s little friend.” As Basira sat, Daisy stretched and rolled over to rest her head against the downy feathers of Basira’s cloak. “I was gonna offer to go eat him, but the village is restless.”
“I don’t want hi -”
“They are,” Sasha agreed, leaning back on her now-completed hands. “They’ve put out the warding stones and the iron, I can’t get past.”
“And the aspens have been talking,” Daisy added, “I can hear them on my rounds.”
“The aspens are always bloody talking,” Jon groused, arms crossed - not sulkily - over his chest. “As bad as the bloody willow. Anyway, can we go back to the - the - the eating thing!”
“It’s not just the aspen, though,” Daisy said, ignoring the eating thing. “The brownies and the hobgoblins are agitated, even the ones who are usually happy in the houses. And the sprites. I went down past the graveyard this morning, and they’d put the lilies out - looks like there’s a funeral.”
The world faded out around Jon. A funeral. Oh. A - a sickness, a lingering sickness, which was enough to make humans jittery on the best of days. And then a funeral, with all the trappings you might expect for someone who was at once respected and revered and needed, but who also trod rather too close to magic for most people’s comfort. Someone who held the kind of power that could not be easily controlled or curtailed. Like a potion maker, perhaps.
Jon got up suddenly, movements halting and unsure. He could feel the restless, agitated shifting of his wings but couldn’t calm them. A funeral, there was - there was going to be -
“I’m going to - to - “ do something. What, he didn’t know. Vomit, maybe. “Uh, have a .... drink -” he lied, and dodged away from the restraining swipe Daisy sent his way. It was quicker, easier, to travel as a moth, so he did, and as a moth his thoughts were simpler, his body smaller; there just wasn’t room for everything.
He should - he should go. To the funeral. To Martin’s - the world wobbled alarmingly, and Jon felt the air fall out from under him, and he rolled a few times in the damp leaf litter and came to rest, upside down, wings crooked and body aching. That’s the thing about magic, it takes concentration, and the rush of - of - of something that had gone through him at the thought… He’d been sulking, and angry, and he’d - Martin was - while Martin had been dying, and he felt especially awful about the stunt with the lower mandible now. The least he could do was turn up and leave an offering, and wish his body a safe and peaceful journey back to the earth.
He considered, and then dismissed, going as a moth. He could hardly carry a wreath like that, not even a very small one. And humans had stories about moths. Many of them - probably one for every kind of moth in the world, and several pulling double duty. And some of those stories, as was always the case with humans, involved death and dying. The stories Jon had curated suggested the presence of a moth wasn’t always an omen, but - better not to risk any unnecessary distress. And not just because magical intent always became a little… volatile when strong emotions were involved. No, he’d - he’d go in human form, and hope that any of his… eccentricities would simply be dismissed as grief and discomfort. No need for him to attend the actual service , anyway, just - in the back. A witness, so he could ensure Martin’s soul wouldn’t get. Lost.
Building and making the wreath, that was the important part. Jon started with foundation; strong, flexible lengths of aspen and birch, woven into a circle of overlapping branches. Into each careful twist he worked other things; grief, affection, goodbye. (harebell, sorrow, aconite) And finally, through all of that, he wove Martin ; dried stalks of heather and the long, prickling stems of sunflowers, bright faces turned up to the sun. In the quiet of the clearing, sun warmed and dappled, the scent of the wreath rose around him, carried on the breeze. The plants caught against his fingers and each other, turning his fingers sticky with gently leaking sap. He’d leave them like that until after the funeral - wash them away in clean, cold water, and let the movement of the earth carry Martin away from him, leaving only a memory.
The sudden noise startled Martin out of his reverie. His fingers flexed, several seconds too late; the mug had already slipped from between his numb, unresponsive fingers. He stared down at the spray of white shrapnel, fighting against the burning prickle behind his eyes. There was something frustrated and angry roiling in his gut. Stupid , couldn’t even drink tea right -
He took a deep breath, held it, and exhaled. He fetched the dustpan and brush from behind the bin and collected the shards of mug into a neat, orderly pile.
He dug the heel of his palm into his eyes, hard, took a deep breath, and opened the door to face the funeral procession on the other side.
Jon had never been to a human funeral before.
He’d read accounts of funerals, of course. In story books, diaries and newspapers, mostly, although there was the occasional wood engraving and radio program. And he knew the kinds of ephemera that floated into the forest afterwards - petals, ribbon and fragments of paper, or the most part. The occasional monogrammed handkerchief or hat, especially if it had been a particularly windy morning. But mostly what his reading had taught him is that there was no definitive way to hold a funeral. Every community had its own rituals and traditions and laws, and that was before you got to the level of individual taste. The forest itself had its own kind of ceremonies for acknowledging the dead - Jon’s wreath was proof enough of that. All of which was to say, Jon wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.
The reality was somewhat… drabber, than he’d expected. Especially for someone like Martin, who radiated a determined sort of kindness reminiscent of the sunflowers he favoured. Everything was cast in a kind of monochrome; black and grey, broken only by the stark white of lilies, roses and carnations. The bright, lush greens of Jon’s own wreath stood out awkwardly where he held it protectively against his body. He caught a few disapproving glances for the round, open faces of the sunflowers braided through, and he held it more secure in his hands. They might have their customs, but he had his. And besides… Martin deserved someone to remember him like this, face lit by sunlight and hands busy.
Either side of the main street was beginning to fill with people; every single adult in the town, or near enough, and darting children sprinkled throughout. Almost everyone was carrying a token or amulet of some kind - white roses for the children, scattering petals in their wake. Other things, for the adults in the crowd, as befitted their outlook and status. More lilies, of course, and roses or marigolds, heads bobbing in the wind. Most of the elders carried iron circlets or wore broaches of silver - faerie and spirit repellant. There were other signs too: old, leather bound books, jewels, elaborate lace shawls. Several people were even wearing veils, their faces obscured. The houses facing the main street had their front windows draped in black cloth instead of curtains, drawn against the morning light. Several garden gates had been wrapped in chains and padlocked shut, as well, and draped in the same black cloth. Each of them sent a tingling pulse of magic against his glamour; not enough to dispel it, not without any targeted intent, but enough to be felt. People were frightened, and grieving, and worried about their own inevitable oblivion; add in the threat of evil spirits and wandering souls, and it was no wonder there was so much power concentrated here.
From the far end of the main street, the procession began. From his vantage point at the back of the crowd, all Jon could make out at first was the plain wooden coffin, held aloft above the crowd. The strangest of human customs, as far as Jon could tell; a corpse winds up worm food whether placed in a box or not. But the practice must have brought some practice - it was quite widespread, as far as Jon could make out. A population who locked their doors and windows against evil spirits and unwanted lingerings probably felt reassured by containing the body of the dead. Plus, bodies were heavy, and a wooden box was probably much easier to carry. Especially if demonosition had set in.
As the procession moved forward, careful inch by careful inch, something felt… off. The crowd was nearly silent. To Jon’s left, a child’s errant question was hastily shushed by an anxious sounding woman, and a distant sound made the crowd rustle like leaves before a storm. Funerals were usually somber affairs, and Jon hadn’t expected gaiety, but he had expected some noise. Surely there should be some crying, or the murmur of voices, perhaps even singing, as the community expressed and shared it’s grief. Not this eerie, waiting silence. As the procession moved closer, the crowd either side took a step backwards, pressing themselves back against the fences and buildings that lined the street. The surge of bodies pressed Jon backwards, further down the alley he’d been loitering in. He frowned, and pushed forward, against the tide of the crowd, craning his head. Martin deserved better, deserved to be witnessed, if not by the townspeople he’d sacrificed so much to serve than at least by Jon, who -
“ Excuse me, I need to - now, there’s no need - !”
“ - excuse me, dear man -”
Jon stumbled, jostled backwards by the still restless crowd. He bumped into a body behind him, too close, and nearly lost his balance; only the timely intervention of the stranger stopped both himself and the wreath tumbling to the floor.
“My apologies,” Jon said, stiffly, and looked up at the stranger. He was an older man; into his second half century, Jon would guess, but he couldn’t offer anything more accurate than that.
He wore an exquisitely cut suit, a rick black with the faintest trace of a pinstripe; the pocket square and tie were a crisp, perfect white, so pure they seemed almost unreal. He was greying at the temples and clean shaven, crow’s feet around his eyes that Jon couldn’t quite bring himself to call laughter lines ; his face was smiling, but there was something cold and fathomless deep in the green, green eyes...
Jon felt another pulsing tingle of magic against his glamour. He huffed and shook himself, resettling his clothes. A quick inventory reassured him that the spell hadn’t slipped; his wings and antennae were still safely hidden away, tucked behind the veil. And the bump had only been momentary, glancing contact - not nearly long enough for someone to realise the shape of him didn’t entirely match up to the visuals.
“Understandable, given the circumstances,” the man said, and extended his hand, forcing Jon to fumble with the wreath again. “Elias Bouchard, at your service,” the man said, shaking Jon’s hand firmly. Unnoticed, a sprig of heather was dislodged from the wreath and carelessly trampled under foot. “Do you know the Blackwood family? I don’t recognise you, and I am very good at remembering faces.”
“I’m a - a friend,” Jon managed, caught somehow in the bright green of the man - Elias’s - eyes.
“My condolences,” the man said, leaning in close enough to make Jon lean back. “Such a pity. Still - a relief, in its way.”
“A relief -” Jon began, indignation crawling up his spine and puffing his chest out, chin tilted upwards, several birch branches cracking under the force of his grip. “How dare you -” He’d just begun to consider jabbing at Elias with a finger when he caught sight of something over the man’s shoulder that drew him up short.
The procession had finally reached Jon’s stretch of the road. From the back of the crowd Jon still couldn’t see much, just the coffin looming overhead and the occasional flash of dress or pale, wan face. Except he could also see, half a foot taller than the rest of the crowd, a tousled head of ginger curls. Jon felt his heart leap into his throat and drop out through the bottom of his stomach at the same time - because Martin didn’t have a brother, or a cousin, or even a very distant uncle. There was just him, he’d said so himself, which means the figure walking along behind the funeral party had to be a - a ghost. Or a specter, or a doppler, or something .
But. But the people around him were talking to him. Or - or at him, maybe. He didn’t seem to be hearing whatever was being said to him, certainly wasn’t responding. He was just walking, one foot in front of the other, face colourless and empty. But if other people could see him...
Jon darted forwards, out of the alley and into the crowd. As the funeral procession moved forward the press of people either side moved forwards, filling the road and blocking Jon’s escape route. But that was alright - Jon didn’t want to leave, not now. Not when Martin was alive , and he could - well, Jon didn’t know what, but it was important to keep sight of him. Even if he had to fight his way through half the town to do so, while the stranger kept pace alongside him. They were nearing the cemetery now, Jon could tell; the street was widening, people rushing in to fill the empty spaced. The scent of flower petals and sweet, wet decay floated out of the open grave and filled Jon’s nose and throat, chokingly thick. And in the middle of the slowly fanning crowd was Martin, back straight as if shouldering the weight of the world.
At his side, the stranger flicked his eyes away from Jon and towards the crowd; eyes that looked, just for a moment, like the fragments of a shattered mirror. Or the creeping, tangled legs of a spider’s web. But no - the moment passed, merely a trick of the light, and Elias was just a man gazing with passable regret at the waiting assembly.
“Ah, yes. A shame for Master Blackwood, of course. Although that should be Mister Blackwood, now, possibly.” Mister Blackwood , Jon mused, and internally pulled a face. He couldn’t imagine Martin, who chatted to small woodland creatures and interesting mushrooms and tiny wild flowers alike, ever being a Mister .
Martin looked up, then, as if he’d heard his name, and turned towards them. Jon was momentarily lost for the breath at the outright hatred in Martin’s expression, taking a few stumbling steps backwards from the force of it. He’d only ever seen Martin’s face at ease, open and relaxed. Even when frowning in concentration of concern, his expression had always seemed gentle. Martin took another step towards them, and Jon fought the urge to take another step away, heart pounding. But it was not him Martin was looking at; he didn’t seem to have even realised there was someone else. His eyes, cold and deep, were fixed firmly on Elias.
“My condolences,” Elias said, with another icy smile, “on the death of your mother.”
Mother , Jon thought, and clutched the wreath more tightly to his chest.
“Thank you,” Martin said, equally glacial. Behind him, the funeral procession were beginning to move on, the gravel of the path crunching underfoot and soon giving way to the quiet shir of shoes over grass. It left the three of them suspended in a moment, still and quiet. Jon gazed up at Martin’s face, the visible tick in his jaw and the clenched fists at his side. He wasn’t carrying anything, not token or amulet or ward, just the dye stains under his fingernails and a lingering scent of death. There were tear tracks on his cheeks he hadn’t bothered to wipe away, and he met Elias’s gaze without flinching, despite the deep shadows pressed like bruises around his eyes. Looking at him drowned almost everything else out.
There was another tingling pulse of magic against his glamour, much stronger this time. Strong enough to send cracks spider-webbing across the spell; Jon felt them reverberate and shiver, caught on the edge of shattering completely. He took a step backwards, away from the two men and the funeral procession, but the crowd had pressed in behind them, eager for a show. As he moved, Elias reached out a hand - to steady him, Jon thought, but it wasn’t his shoulder he was reaching for. The man’s fingers curled through the air a few inches from Jon’s shoulder, where his wings would be - where they were , suddenly, as Elias’s fist clenched shut and the spell finally dissolved.
For a split second, Jon’s true form was visible. Wings, antennae, the fine fuzz where both they met his skin. Elias was reaching for him, again; there was another pulse of magic, something Jon could feel in his bones , like knocking an elbow against something hard enough to feel it in your fingers. He knew , he’d known all along, he’d been hunting him…
“ Go !”
Jon jerked his head up. The last thing he saw before he became a moth was Martin, one hand raised, palm flat, towards Elias. His face was creased with effort, tension tight across his broad shoulders, but when he glanced at Jon they were wide and warm. “Quickly, I can’t hold it much longer.”
Jon flew as fast as he could back towards the forest and through the trees, terror lancing through his body. He flew until he found Daisy, returned to her den after her patrols, and burrowed in under her enormous, protective bulk. He didn’t stop shivering, even when he transformed, for a very, very long time.
“I’m sorry,” Martin said, quietly, and rubbed the palm of his hands into his eyes, hard. “I - well, it doesn’t matter.”
There was an indignant snuffling noise from behind the teapot, and Martin couldn’t help the teary, exhausted huff of laughter that squeezed out of him, nor the sob that followed it.
Gods but funerals were awful. Martin was glad that his mother was finally - hopefully - at rest. It had been many, many years since she’d found anything approaching peace, and the quiet damp earth to which her body was now consigned would bring her that, at least. And there had been a kind of peacefulness in tending her body, too. No effort he ever went to while she was alive ever seemed like enough, and he knew she’d despised the mere sight of him. But in death… he could mourn her as quietly and for as long as he wished to, could love her as loudly as he’d always wanted to, and he could tell her everything he had ever needed to and never could.
But everything else -
His mother had hated roses with a passion only dwarfed by her hatred for lilies, he knew, and not only because she considered them a waste of perfectly good soil. She had hated many things, in the end; her son, this house, people, reading, rain, sun, snow… Would have hated the rigmarole of a proper funeral, too, all those people who’d despised her pretending they didn’t, because the only thing scarier than a sick witch was a dead one with a grudge. But Martin didn’t have a choice about whether he hated them or not, because it was expected of him, and he’d had to keep up with all the potion orders because anxiety and arthritis and heart murmurs didn’t stop for something as paltry as grief, the village relied on him, and they had to trust him even if they didn’t like him, and -
Martin took another tear lined breath and exhaled it, slow, until the tea cups on the wall stopped rattling. He dipped his rag into the bucket of warm, soapy water beside him and went back to scrubbing the floor.
And that was before Elias fucking Bouchard had turned up, the bastard. Bad enough that he stuck his nose into everyone’s business whether he was wanted or not, and wielded secrets like weapons. Bad enough he was the Librarian and record-keeper for the town, and that Martin had had to find time between all the crying and the tending and the brewing to register his mother’s death and transfer the paperwork into his name and answer all of Elias’s badgering, condescending, infuriating questions.
But then he had to go and -
Exhaling slowly, Martin closed his eyes and counted to ten. No use spilling dirty water over his newly clean floor. It was just…
He didn’t remember much about the day of the funeral. At some point he must have woken up, gotten dressed, and shaved. He must have fulfilled a couple of orders, because the tincture for Ms. Montague and a burn salve for Mr. Barnabas had disappeared from his outbox, dried wax sitting in the crucible over a burned down candle. What he did remember were disjointed snapshots, mostly; dropping the mug, Tim’s unnaturally grave face, the splinter under his thumbnail from the coffin. But mostly it was a blur of colour and noise that seemed to be coming from behind a sheet of glass, sensory input from someone else’s life, someone else’s body. It wasn’t him standing in the damp grass next to an open grave.
But he could remember the confrontation with Elias. And, most vividly of all, he could remember the entity that had stood beside him. Shorter than Elias, and much slighter; bird-boned, Martin can remember thinking, and managed a wry smile. Wide, brown eyes and dark eyelashes, sharp cheekbones, and a wonderful nose. Their dark hair, streaked with white, had been pulled back into a neat plait. In his memory, Martin couldn’t remember the clothes; dark, he’d thought, obscured by the large wreath of wildflowers clutched in his hands. But superimposed over that was the momentary glimpse he’d gotten of something more - tall, fluffy antennae and rust-red wings, shivering with tension and fear. And the flight of an agitated moth, familiar bright blue flashes at the wing tips. Very familiar bright blue flashes.
And Martin had known his little friend was fey. It wasn’t that unusual, even. But a fey who took human form? That was rare.
And now Elias knew there was one nearby.
Martin sighed, and heaved himself to his feet. As he hauled the bucket of water to the garden drain, his eyes fell on the wreath, still leaning against the hearth and slowly leaking petals.
“Right,” Martin said, to the empty air, dusting his hands off on his apron and unafraid, for the first time in his life, to raise his voice. “Time to go do something about it.”
“He’s back again,” Jon heard Sasha murmur, from his spot under Daisy’s protective bulk. “Still has the wreath, too.”
Daisy’s answering growl seemed to make the whole world shake; Jon could feel the reverb in his bones, the fine fuzz of his antennae and the downy hairs around his wings. He’d been coming every day, according to the others - Martin, with the now-wilting wreath, and his knitting, and a new pot of honey on the log where they used to meet.
Jon had tried to ignore it, he really did. But there was an itch, where the twin eyes of his wings were tucked against his body to know . He stuck his head out from behind Daisy’s jaw to peer at Basira, at the dark blue-black of her wings and the careful way she held herself; the mouthful of Daisy’s fur tucked into the pocket of her cloak, better to line her nest.
“What does he want?”
Three pairs of startled eyes swivelled around to look at him. None of them had heard him speak since The Incident, as they’d all started calling it in the low, whispered conversation they had between themselves. Ever seen he’d nearly been - a fine tremor of fear worked itself through Jon’s body, crawling over his skin like mites, and he shook his body as if to rid himself of the sensation and memory both.
He saw Basira and Sasha exchange looks - they did it quite often, when he asked probing, demanding questions. Usually there was an accompanying eyeroll, or raised eyebrows, or a huff of shared exasperation - Jon had never outgrown the childhood impulse to ask question after question, and it wore against the patience of his much more well-travelled friends. But there was none of that, now, only soft concern and something approaching fear. Usually there was some muttered comment about Jon’s penchant for tearing off into danger at the slightest hint that there was something new to know, to understand . Not this time.
“He - ah. To apologise, I think.”
Sasha looked uncomfortable, the way too-close contact with humans always made her. “He was - was talking, out loud, with the honey and the wreath. He wasn’t - there wasn’t any iron or silver on him, and his eyes were closed, barefoot. Like he - well. Like he knew what, what things humans usually wear to. Hurt us.”
And Sasha would know, Jon mused. Of all of them, Sasha would know, since she was born in the village and had to live with them until they’d tried to burn her. The silver and the iron always had more of an effect on her - she’d grown up with human beliefs, and that kind of thing tended to stick, bone deep.
Jon poked his head further out of Daisy’s bulk. Took a deep breath. “I want to see him.”
There was a further exchange of concerned glances. Daisy’s warning rumble echoed through the clearing, shaking the surrounding trees and sending a small avalanche of branches down on them. She’d been a Grim from the moment he’d first fled to her, the better to curl her enormous, hulking body around his trembling limbs. And also, he suspected, so she didn’t have to think too hard about the consequences.
“I do ,” Jon insisted, antennae flickering in the breeze that swept into the mouth of Daisy’s den where they were resting. He lifted his chin, defiant. “If you don’t let me, I’ll just go anyway. You know I will.”
Oh. There was the eye rolling and disgruntled muttering. Much better
Which wasn’t to say Jon wasn’t terrified out of his mind.
Even with Daisy’s enormous bulk on one side and Sasha on the other (extra brambles would around her hands and through her hair, stinging nettles on her palms), Basira at his back, he felt… exposed.
Because maybe Martin had been working with Elias all along. All those long, quiet afternoons in the clearing were starting to go stormy-skied and angry in Jon’s mind. As if a curtain had been pulled back, every scene stunk of betrayal and a cloying kind of foolishness. Because Martin had been kind, and gentle, and sad - but Jon knew how easy it was for people to lie. Even easier to obfuscate and misdirect. Surely he must have been suspicious of Jon’s true nature right from the start. He was a witch, afterall, in all but name. Had basically admitted as much, when he’d brought the honey and shared the secrets of his knitting and held him in his palm. And Jon had walked right into the trap - a trap that led straight to Elias.
Because Jon had heard the stories. They’d all heard the stories, every creature of the forest and wandering sprite and falling leaf. They were taught to every child, sapling and tadpole until they knew them like the back of their hand. Most who lived deeper into the wilderness took them for mere folktales, cautionary tales to scare children away from wandering too far or straying too close. Monster stories, as the humans would say. But those of them that lived close knew they were true. The human world held many obstacles for the forest creatures - iron, silver, knotted string, salt, running water. Some were intended as a boundary, or a prison, and very occasionally to hurt. But they were born of fear, mostly - always sharpest and most wide reaching when there was a death or a sickness or a disappearance, and loosening when the people were happy and comfortable. When harvests had been plentiful and the weather good.
But some of them… some of them, Jon knew, wanted more. The Collectors, they were called, in the stories. They always looked the part, in the old tales - elbow-patched men with butterfly nets and deep baskets for egg collecting, brandishing a book into which they would catalogue, press and preserve their conquests. They were different, Jon’s Mum used to say, than those folks who used the forest - to feed themselves, to heal themselves, to heal others. Most of a witch’s store cupboard came, afterall, from the forest. The Collectors, though, they came just to - to collect. To possess.
Mr Bouchard was a Collector, and Jon had nearly been collected.
Jon smelled Martin before he saw him. He still smelled faintly of sulphur and burning herbs and soap, although the scent of sickness and death had flaked off of him by now. Old leather and floor polish, too, and the very faintest trace of sunflower that must still be clinging to the wreath. They approached him from behind, and downwind; that was how Jon first saw him again, head bowed, coppery curls eskew. He was wearing a warm-looking and much-darned jumper that Jon recognised, and itched to dig his fingers into.
In Grim form, Daisy didn’t so much speak as boom, a sound like cracking thunder. It was enough to make Jon jump, and the man in front of him startled hard. Daisy’s ears pricked, and Jon imagined she was listening to the jack-rabbiting of his heart and the quick, uneven rise and fall of his breathing. The threat in Daisy’s voice was clear - move, and die.
She left Jon’s side, and leaped forward. Jon could taste the sweet scent of fear, thick on his tongue, as she moved towards him; Martin’s shoulders were shaking, hands balled into fists, but he stayed still despite the predator stalking towards his unguarded neck.
The rumbling growl made the ground around them quiver. The trees leaned away from Daisy as far as their roots would allow, creaking in their soil. But still Martin didn’t move, despite the trembling in his limbs.
Jon watched with bated breath as Daisy opened her jaws and lowered them over his bowed head. Even from across the clearing Jon could see the points of her canines pressing against the fragile skin of his throat; could see where her hot, heavy steam of her breath turned to liquid against his throat
Still he did not move.
The entire forest seemed to hold its breath until finally Daisy stepped back, jaws closing with a snap inches from his ear. Martin flinched, finally, and slumped like all his strings had been cut; his hands shook almost too badly for him to lift the wreath in his lap.
“Thank you for the wreath,” Martin said, and his voice shook and there were tears choking his words, but they were strong despite that, and earnest. “I don’t - I think these were for me,” he continued, and carefully straightened out the now-dead flowers, brushing affectionate fingers over the leaves. “I am grateful, and honoured, and -” He broke off again, to stifle a sob, and Jon found his feet carrying him forward without permission.
“And I’m sorry about Mr. Bouchard, I didn’t - he’s - “
“He’s what?” Jon asked, and dodged Basira’s attempt to snag him by the cloak and pull him back. “He knew you. Why does he know you? How did he know ?”
When Martin spoke, this time, his voice had rounded out, gone flat; Jon winced at the accidental power he’d pushed into the questions, but he couldn’t quite regret it, either. “He’s the Librarian. He likes to Collect things. He knows me because I live in the village, and he knows everyone there.” There was a pause, and Martin’s eyes cleared. “As for how he knows - Elias Bouchard makes it his business to know everything.”
“Do you work for him?”
Martin laughed. It was a hollow sound, like rapping on the trunk of a dead tree. “He likes to think so.”
“Who do you work for?”
“But your potions, you said - “
“Oh,” Martin said, surprised. “Oh, it is you, I wondered - but that’s not the point, is it, haha. I suppose I do work for those people, but it’s not really - I’d do it anyway, probably, I’m not very good at magic but I can’t just let people -” Here Martin cut himself off, and scrubbed his hands against the fabric of his trousers and cleared his throat. “I suppose it would be most accurate to say I work for - for myself, and for the people . I only charge because they don’t believe in it, otherwise.” A short pause. “The point is, I don’t work for Elias Bouchard, or anyone else, and I’m not here to hurt you.”
Jon believed him.
He stepped out from behind Martin and knelt down in front of him, ignoring the shouted protests of his friends and Daisy’s insistent nudging at his shoulder. He reached out and took Martin’s hands in his, linked their fingers together. He watched Martin look him over; from his hands, scarred and pot-marked, all the way up to his face. There was nothing in the human’s expression and scent but tentative happiness and a quiet sort of awe.
“Hello,” said Martin, voice quiet. “It’s a pleasure to meet you properly.”
“Hello,” Jon said, a little awkward. He twitched - shaking out his wings and his antennae, hands trying to knock away his own embarrassment. Martin’s eyes tracked the movement, expression bright and curious and warm. “You can call me Jon.”
“I did wonder, you know. What kind of fey you were.”
It was strange, being this deep in the forest. He’d never have dared venture this far on his own, not even in search of ingredients. Even his and Jon’s little clearing had been pushing it, despite the dirty path and the twinkle of the town’s lights just past the tree line. Not that Martin thought the forest was dangerous, per se, or at least no more dangerous than anywhere else. But it was always smart to have a strong grasp of the rules when visiting somewhere new, and Martin didn’t know the rules of the forest.
Jon’s antennae flickered, on a delay of several seconds. The were impossibly soft-looking, like elderdown, and expressive, too. Martin’s fingers itched with the urge to touch, to learn, to see if he could find a fibre that came even close - but he didn’t, and sat on his hands to quell the impulse. At least until Sasha demanded the use of them for the winding of her hair; the fibers caught much less often on his calluses than they had the bark of a forked twig.
“I sort of guessed. Or, well - I had a feeling, and then I did research. Plus the - the pots were always gone, you know, when I came back. And I suppose it could have been the wind, or anything, a badger, after the honey, but. I just… I just had this feeling. About you.”
It was just the three of them today - Sasha, Martin, Jon. Evidently deemed suitably non-threatening, at least to the degree a Grim-sized bodyguard wasn’t required. He was fairly sure Sasha had even discarded the rose-thorns hidden in her palms.
“A feeling,” Jon says, in the blank tone of voice Martin was also learning to read as disbelief and discomfort. “About me.”
Which - Martin felt himself flush red, and concentrated on keeping his hands still for Sasha. “We - ell. When you put it like that, it sounds silly. I only meant, ah - “ Martin cringed, took a few deep, calming breaths. “Yes, I did have a feeling about you, like. Like how I knew my little hearth friend liked raspberries and salt, and didn’t like the rosemary I used to hang over the teapot, and how they actually don’t much care about whether they get the first bread of the day so long as I leave them my egg shells.”
Jon tossed his head and resettled his cloak around his shoulders like a disgruntled crow, chest puffed out. It was hard not to smile, especially when he looked up and accidentally caught Sasha’s eye and realised she was doing the same.
“These are paddle combs,” Martin explained, handing one across to Sasha and the other to Jon. “They’re for preparing the raw wool so I can spin it and make it into yarn.” He gestured at the various bundles strewn across the large rhubarb leaf they were using as a table today. “I don’t do much of my own, to be honest. I’m not very good at it. But it’s fun to practice, and it gives my hands a rest, and sometimes it’s good for the more intricate spell work - really get the charm worked in there, you know?”
“Do you do that a lot? Put magic in your knitting?”
“What kind of magic?”
“Protection, mostly. From the elements. From loneliness. From the cold, metaphorical or otherwise.” There was something about Jon’s questions, sometimes, that pulled answers out of him that Martin didn’t expect to put voice to. Not secrets, but - like they were coming from somewhere inside of him he usually tried to keep closed.
Martin watched Jon’s face screw up in thought, eyebrows coming together in a cute little furrow. Even his antennae seemed to scrunch up too, shoulders hunched. He was impossibly dear, like this, cloak thrown back so he can use his hands more freely, cross legged in the leaf litter and rasping his palm repeatedly over the bristles of Martin’s comb paddle.
That was also something Martin usually tried to keep a lid on.
“Do you charge for it?”
“Only for the yarn and the time.” And sometimes not even that, depending. The potions were the real magic, anyway, no matter how nice it was to have a cowl that kept the rain off, just a little bit more than you might expect. “The knitting magic is usually an accident, anyway. Comes with the territory. That much time and effort and intention, something’s pound to rub off eventually.”
Martin watched Jon’s expression do something he couldn’t quite parse - a slight widening of the eyes. Shock, maybe? Disbelief? Whatever it was, it prickled uneasily across the back of Martin’s neck, the hairs standing on end.
“An accident,” Jon repeated, a strangled note in his tone. “Accidental magic.”
Oh, well, now Martin felt his ears burn. Bad enough to admit to being only halfway decent at potions, but to admit he had so little skill as to accidentally cast magic about willy nilly? Useless, he was, no wonder his mother -
“Anyway!” Martin went on, hoping that Jon wouldn’t notice the faint tremble in the cheeriness of his tone. No point dwelling on spilled milk. “Did I ever tell you about the sweater curse story?” As desperate and obvious a jab at distraction as it might have seemed to Martin, it was a successful one - Jon was always hungry for the stories humans told to and about each other. He leaned in, elbows on his knees and paddle forgotten apart from the continued movement of his palm against the bristles, and Martin settled into recounting the curse of the boyfriend sweater.
Martin was being… strange, today.
He’d come into Jon’s little clearing much earlier than usual. The sun had barely crept spindly fingers into Jon’s nest when he’d stumbled in, looking drawn and tired. There were deep purple bruises under his eyes, like blackberries trampled underfoot. When Jon had finally dragged himself out of bed, wrapping himself up in the warmest blanket he could find, and gone out to greet him, Martin hadn’t said a word. The smile he gave was barely a smile at all, and his eyes were dead and empty, like something had been hollowed out from the core of him.
He didn’t have his knitting needles, or his drop spindle, or his darning. Nor the little woven basket he used for collecting herbs and plants and quill feathers, or the backpack he used for gathering dead wood. Had brought nothing with him, in fact, and it was disconcerting to see him empty handed and still.
But he didn’t have to be alone.
Abandoning the blanket and bracing for the early morning chill, Jon transformed. Still sleep clumsy and disorientated, he fluttered down to alight on Martin’s shoulder, nuzzling in against his cheek.
Martin didn’t yell. He didn’t clasp a hand to his chest and push, playfully, at Jon’s delicate body. There was no startled laughter, and half yelled admonishment to stop that, Jon, you’ll give me a heart attack ! Not even a protest over the moth-dust on his favourite jumper. In fact, Martin barely even acknowledged Jon was there.
Jon let the spell drop. Sitting next to him, Jon could see that Martin looked awful; his curls were limp and lifeless, hidden under a hat. His eyes, still dull and unfocused, were red rimmed and raw looking, the bruises even deeper in the growing morning light. When Jon reached out to take one of his hands, lying loosely in his lap, he was freezing to the touch.
Jon took a deep breath and lifted Martin’s arm. He eased himself under it and tucked himself against Martin’s side, head nestled against his shoulder. He wished he’d brought the blanket, now, instead of leaving it behind in an attempt to make Martin laugh. But he wanted to leave Martin alone like this even less, and hoped the slight warmth of his body and the company would help. In the quiet of the clearing, Jon took a deep breath and let his eyes unfocus and his consciousness flow outwards, buffeted along by air currents and wind. As it moved, it snagged against fragments of stories, memories, dreams; fragments he spoke aloud, voice rising and falling along with the words, laying them out in front of Martin like gifts.
Eventually, as the dawn turned to morning, Martin finally found his voice. “Sorry,” he murmured, as Jon roused himself and carefully re-locked the door, the stream of stories lapping against the door frame like an incoming tide.
“Don’t be,” Jon replied, and stretched, self-conscious but relieved. “Tea?”
“Thank you,” Martin replied, with a small smile, one that widened when Jon returned with a teapot, biscuits and the discarded blanket, which he tucked around Martin’s still-cold shoulders.
“Thank you, Jon,” he murmured, once the tea had been drunk, and Jon bumped his forehead against Martin’s shoulder in acknowledgement.
“A ghost, Jon, really? , ” Martin shrieked, voice carrying in gleeful, mocking delight.
“Yes, yes, alright!” Jon protested, flapping hands and wings at Martin and trying to smother Martin’s laughter at the same time. “ In my defense, you just stopped turning up, and then Basira said there was a funeral, and -”
“And he panicked,” Sasha interrupted, and Jon paused in his attempts to wrestle Martin into silence to stick his tongue out at her, which she returned with great relish.
“I’m touched, Jon, really,” Martin added, grin softening into something warmer, eyes crinkling at the corners. Flustered, Jon ducked his head and muttered something unintelligible, peering at Martin out of the corner of one eye.
He elected to ignore the gagging motion Sasha was making at him across the grass, where Martin couldn’t see.
Startled, Jon blinked down at his tea mug. A few seconds later, there was another drop, big enough to make tea slosh out the side.
Martin, frozen in his tracks, looked at Jon. Jon looked back, mug still half raised in indignant protest.
Five seconds later, the heavens opened.
“Jon! The dye pots!”
“Yes, yes, I know -”
Jon fumbled up to his feet and darted forward, hissing at the rain landing in big, awkward spots on his cloak and running uncomfortably down his back. Martin was already pulling on the rope for their makeshift shelter, hauling the old tarp and timber structure into place over the simmering cauldrons of dye and yarn. The fire hissed and popped angrily where the odd drip landed amongst the embers until Martin had tied off the guy ropes that held the structure taut.
Jon, meanwhile, had collected everything else they could save from the rain; his books, Martin’s discarded jumper, and the bundle of leftover woad stems they’d spent all morning foraging for. In the distance, enormous peels of thunder were rolling in; a few moments later, the rapidly darkening sky was lit up, highlighting the bank of pitch-black clouds above the treeline.
Jon looked out forlornly at the little clearing that was rapidly turning to mud in front of him, and braced himself for the dash across the clearing to his nest. Moments later, Martin made the same quick dash, arms full of already-dyed skeins that had been slowly drying on the washing line. Moisture and wool disagreed in ways Jon was still largely unsure of, although possibly it was good in some circumstances and mostly depending on the application of pressure and heat? Either way, being left out in the storm wouldn’t do them any good.
“Well… suppose I ought to be heading home,” Martin said, staring balefully out at the rain.
Jon looked over at him. His hair was already plastered flat to his forehead, rain dripping off the end of his nose and running down the back of his neck. He was already starting to shiver in his wet clothes, all of which were soaked through. Outside, there was another, rumbling roll of thunder; a few seconds later, the bolt of lightning was strong enough to send shivers of static through the fine hairs of Jon’s cloak and antennae. Jon knew the only thing between here and Martin’s house was slick mud and open field.
“No,” Jon said, and knew it had come out too aggressively from how Martin startled next to him.
“Well… I can hardly stay here all night,” Martin argued, looking down at their mud-slick feet. “There’s barely room for the cauldrons, let alone me.”
“Yes,” Jon acknowledges, tipping his head in acceptance. He resisted the urge to fidgets with his antennae and to hide his face in his wings. “But you could - my, my house is just across the clearing.”
“O - oh.”
Martin was blushing. Jon could see it, even in the odd half-light of the storm, a red stain that reached his ears and down his neck. He was staring, wide eyed and slightly helpless, and - oh no. That was a strange thing to suggest, wasn’t it? He’d invited a human into his house, and humans had all kinds of ideas about faerie hospitality. Not that he was a faerie, but it was always better to err on the side of caution, and there was a reason to be cautious when it came to some individuals or courts. Martin would be worrying about being trapped, of course. And that was assuming he didn’t just think Jon was odd, and unpleasant, and was just being kind.
Jon opened his mouth to take it back -
“Oh, I. Um. Yes. Please? If that’s - if that’s alright! No worries if not, of course, I should… hah, don’t want to intrude.”
“You wouldn’t be intruding,” Jon assured him, and felt himself flush pink to match Martin.
“Oh, well, um. Then - yes please?”
Jon stared at him for a few long, awkward moments. He clapped his hands together, awkward, and cringed at himself. “Right. Well. Yes then.”
On the count of three, Jon took off across the clearing at a sprint, aiming for the ticket of trees closest to his house. He waited on the edge, shifting from foot to foot as more rain soaked into his cloak, for Martin to catch up. It wasn’t far, nor was it magically hidden, but Jon had taken pains to obscure the path, just in case. He led them carefully through the undergrowth, concentrating on the sound of Martin stumbling along behind him, shoes slipping in the mud and brambles catching at his clothes. To make sure Martin didn’t get lost or fall, of course, but also to distract himself from the nerves jangling in his stomach and spreading out through the rest of him. He could feel them trembling through his wings and down his fingers, which he twisted together as they got closer and closer to the old oak into which Jon had built his home.
“Oh,” Martin breathed out, behind him, when they finally stopped. “It’s - that’s beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Jon murmured, and tugged nervously on his antennae. The small, wooden cottage had been built into the lowest, broadest branches of the oak, curving around the broad trunk. A crooked chimney emerged amongst the canopy from which a steady curl of smoke rose whenever Jon cooked or stoked the fire for warmth. The branches of the tree itself were set about with gently twinkling lights, visible in the storm-light, highlighting the overspill of Jon’s collection. Hung from twine and rope were strings of coloured beads and glass shards, reflecting the lights. Visible too were garlands of dried mushrooms and bundles of dried herbs and flowers, their scents catching on the wind. Everywhere bark was visible thousands of nails and coins had been hammered into the wood, so long ago that the tree had grown up and swallowed them.
… Probably the articulated bird skeletons and mice skulls were somewhat alarming. Jon darted a nervous look at Martin. But Martin still looked the same as he had when they’d first entered the clearing; eyes wide and awed, eyes twinkling.
Jon took the steps up to the front door two at a time and unlocked the door with a wave of his hand. He quickly collected the morning’s coffee mugs off the armrest and kicked assorted embarrassments under the couch. Moving the teetering pile of books off the armchair so Martin could sit sent pinwheels of dust into the air and made both of them sneeze. It stuck to his still-wet wings like a thick, uncomfortable velvet shroud and made Jon’s shoulders twitch against the itch.
“Are, ah - are you okay?” Martin asked into the awkward silence, and Jon froze guilty, one arm bent awkwardly up his back and what he could tell was a magnificent scowl on his face.
“Just - my wings are wet.”
“Oh.” Martin tipped his head, clearly curious. He hesitated a moment, and then leant forward. He was wearing the kind of expression he got around new patterns, or when Sasha was showing him a new kind of knot, or a dye mixture he was testing was behaving in unexpected ways. Jon found himself smiling despite himself. “Does it - does it hurt?”
“Mm, no.” Jon wriggled his shoulders. “Just - itchy?”
Martin made an understanding noise, and made an abortive move as if to reach out - it made a tremble roll through Jon’s body that had nothing to do with the rain.
“Do you - I could, um. I could help?”
“I’m sorry, that was very rude of me, I’m sorry, I don’t know what I - “
“ Yes !” Jon interrupted, perhaps a little more forcefully than strictly necessary. But the thought of Martin touching him, smoothing gently over his wings...
“Oh, ah. Alright. Um. Towel?”
After much faffing and nervous giggling, they managed to arrange themselves. Jon had draped himself over the armrest of the couch, his back to Martin and chest supported by the armrest. His head, nestled on his folded arms, were resting on a pillow, the better to hide his face and muffle any noises he might make. Martin was kneeling carefully behind him, a fire-warmed cloth in hand.
“Alright,” Jon heard Martin murmurs softly, apparently to himself. And then, louder, “Alright, I’m starting now,”
Martin gently pressed the cloth to one of Jon’s wings. He held it against the fine down, letting the cloth soak up the clinging water droplets rather than attempting to rub. The touch was achingly gentle and delicate, and Jon’s wings shivered with it, antennae twitching. A purring rumble, deep in his chest, worked itself out of his throat and into the air between them.
“I’m sorry,” Martin said, again, and Jon cringed at the uncertainty in his voice. “Do I - should I stop?”
“No, no, it’s - please, um, carry on. They’re just. Sensitive.”
“Oh,” Martin said, voice quietly. “Al - alright,” and Jon felt him gently return to his task, infinitely careful.
“Jon?” Martin asked, some indeterminate time later. Rain was still beating against the windows and the fire had burned down low; Jon must have fallen asleep under Martin’s careful tending.
“... Your wings. Do they - can you take them off?”
Jon jerked under Martin’s hands, and only the gentle movement of Martin’s thumb against the shell of one wing, careful and absentminded, stopped Jon from tearing himself away. It was safe to have Martin against his back, touching him. Even so, Jon felt terror and nausea roll through his body like a wave, and he shivered hard at the thought.
“ No ,” Jon said, half a snarl, and curled his arms protectively around his body. The thought was - it brought to mind images of butterflies pinned to cork and mounted on walls, of small children plucking the legs off of spiders. He’d met old women with beetle-wing dresses and stuffed songbirds in their hats, glassy eyes staring endlessly and forever outwards. And most of all it reminded him of Elias Bouchard’s reaching, grasping hands, and the greedy look in his eyes.
He felt Martin sooth a hand down the length of one wing, and then the other, scratching gently at the fluffy at the base of them, and Jon felt himself calm, slowly. “I just - I wondered, because that day at the funeral…”
“Oh,” Jon said, and twisted his head back over his shoulder to smile at Martin, shy and pleased. “Oh, I can - hide them, I suppose? Like a. Like a glamour. They’re always there , though.”
“... can you show me?”
“Oh, I - I suppose.” It wasn’t difficult magic; just a little bit of concentration, like might be involved in walking on an uneven path. Martin’s hands on his wings made it harder; it made them feel realer, grounded in time and space. Harder to shunt them backwards out of reality and pull a blurred curtain over them. But he did it, and it was worth it for the soft exhale of surprise Martin made as the wings faded out of existence but still real under Martin’s hands. Something warm and pleased bloomed in the pit of Jon’s stomach.
When the spell dropped, Jon fluffed his wings out, like ruffling hair that had been worn under a hat too long. Behind him, Martin giggled and his hands disappeared. When Jon craned around to look, he found Martin wiping at his eyes. He was coated all over with a fin layer of soft, downy powder from Jon’s wings. It clung to Martin’s skin like extra freckles and darkened his hair. His hands had accumulated much more, coating his palms in a rich red-brown and collecting under his fingernails.
“Oops.” Jon thought he should be embarrassed, and apologetic, but Martin didn’t look much like he minded. And there was something tender and catching at the sound of Martin’s laughter and the warm creases around his eyes. When he blinked, Jon could see the wing-dust had scattered freckles across his eyelids, too, liked kisses. Flustered, Jon turned back and buried his face in the pillow and tried to ignore the feeling in his gut at Martin wearing his colours.
“Oh!” Martin said, suddenly, and jumped up from the couch. Jon jerked around quickly, cushion tumbling to the floor. He watched Martin stride across the living room to their hastily discarded bag and start to rummage. “Pass me the towel?”
“Why?” Jon asked, smile threatening to break through the scowl at Martin’s eye roll.
“ Because, ” Martin said, one hand on his hip, “I have a present for you, and I don’t want to get your dust all over my yarn.”
“Oh, well, for a present ,” Jon said, and dropped the scowl. He tossed the towel to Martin and settled in to wait, wriggling on the couch in impatient excitement. Martin took his time cleaning his hands, working the folded edge of the towel under each nail to tease out the dust. Once clean, Martin withdrew a bundle from the bottom of his back. It was neatly wrapped in brown paper and tied up with butcher’s twine, a medallion of sealers wax holding everything in place. Tucked into the twin were sprigs of dried lavender, elderflower and daisy.
Martin dropped the package into Jon’s lap and sat next to him, hands clasped in his own lap while Jon picked at the wax seal, lifting it gently away from the paper. He slid the bundle of string, wax and dried flowers off one corner and then the other, setting it aside to add to his collection later. For now, he concentrated on folding back the layers of brown paper and tissue paper to reveal a folded bundle of rich green yarn, shot through with gold and grey. It was impossibly fine, barely a hair’s width wide; the colours caught against the candlelight, shimmering iridescent. Jon’s hands shook as he lifted it out of the paper to reveal the fine filigree of lace. It was impossibly soft against his skin, almost weightless, and moved like water through his fingers. And every single inch of it was imbued with a delicate lattice-work of magic, so potent it made Jon’s hands tingle with warmth. Just the dying must have taken hours; Jon had no framework for how long the actual knitting had taken. That Martin had been thinking about him the entire time was -
When Jon finally looked up, Martin’s eyes were dark and anxious, fingers twisted tightly together.
“I hope you like it.”
“I -” Jon had to pause and clear his throat, drawing the bundle close to his chest. “I love it.”
“I’m glad.” Martin’s expression was still nervous, but slowly melting into cautious pleasure and shyness. “It’s a very old pattern. I’m glad I finally found a use for it.”
Jon smoothed his hands over the shawl again, unfolding it fully, with the intention of wrapping it around his shoulders. As he did so, a smaller package tumbled out into his lap; this one was also sealed with wax and twine. Inside, nestled amongst more tissue paper and sunflower petals, was a shawl pin. Made of hammered silver, the needle of the pin had been elongated and hammered flat on one end until it resembled a fly agaric mushroom.
“I know silver doesn’t really hurt you,” Martin says, quietly, as he pinned the delicate object carefully through the shawl, holding it in place around Jon’s shoulders. “But it takes protection magic so well. And it - it suits you, your hair.”
“Thank you, Martin,” Jon says, a lump in his throat and voice rough. “It’s - they’re perfect.”
(art by yourlocalartmenace)
It should have been an awful day.
According to every law of narrative and by the rights of the universe, it should have been. The kind of grey, overcast day that by all rights should come with dark, heavy banks of cloud and a howling wind that whined through the gnarled branches like the shrielf of a banshee. The light, so low it might as well be night, should have sent ominous shadows reaching and snatching at the clothes of passer’s by.
But of course it wasn’t.
In fact, it was a thoroughly normal day. The high noon sun threw dappled shade across the undergrowth beneath; a gentle breeze rustled the leaves overhead, keeping the threat of humidity at bay. Somewhere nearby, Martin was foraging further and further into the cool shadow of the trees, woven basket swinging from the crook of his elbow. Above them, the songbirds hopped from branch to branch and sang their hearts out.
Or at least, they had been.
Icy tendrils of dread ran down Jon’s spine like freezing rain, sinking it’s awful fingers into the soft, warm parts of him. It was a voice that haunted his dreams, leering up out of dark shadows and sliding across happy memories, dripping empty civility and poisoned malice. A voice that laid traps, and waited for Jon to stumble into it.
“Where’s Martin?” the voice asked, “I do hope nothing has happened to him.”
A dull, burning ember of anger curled to life in Jon’s stomach, pushing back the paralysing tendrils of cold dread. The sight of Elias’s smile, cold and faintly bored, stoked the flames high enough to melt the frost holding Jon still. He rose and turned to face Elias, limbs trembling somewhere between fear and bravery.
“ Leave him alone .”
“Come now, Jon,” Elias went on, voice shifting into disinterested threat. “He’s not here to protect you this time.” He stepped towards Jon, and Jon resisted the urge to step backwards; he felt certain that yielding to Elias in any way would be letting the man win. He may not consider him a particularly brave kind of fey, but he could be a stubborn one. Besides, somewhere behind him was Martin, gathering herbs and flowers for his potion work and his knitting. To leave nothing between Elias and the man who thwarted him…
So Jon watched Elias step closer, in easy and unhurried steps. Even in the bright midday sunshine his eyes were glowing an unmistakable, sickly green. The ground at his feet was glowing also; as he moved, spindles of the same light filled his footprints and overflowed. The green wave of water crashed over Jon’s feet. As it made contact, it began to rise - at first a tight band of pressure around his ankles, and then his knees, rising upwards as Elias got closer. It reached his waist and torso, pinning Jon’s hands to his sides. When it reached his chest, Jon couldn’t even find the breathe to struggle; surely the tide would keep rising and filled his mouth and nose, fill his ears, choking out everything that had ever been there until it was just Elias, endless and forever -
The green wave stopped. The silver shawl pin, fastened at Jon’s right shoulder, trembled. A ripple went through the green wave; then another, and another. Each one was stronger than the last until it was a wave of its own, pushing back. The held stalemate for a small eternity, as the world behind Jon’s eyelids grew grey and cold. Until finally the tide turned and the green wave retreated.
“I can hear you, Mister Blackwood,” Elias called out, his voice echoing oddly through the trees. It was the only sound; even the wind seemed to have fled. “Do put the sickle down before you hurt yourself.”
Martin emerged from the treeline ten feet to Jon’s left. “Leave, Elias.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Elias had regained some of his composure, pulled the tattered guise of a mid-level bureaucrat over the sneering truth underneath. He turned his green-eyed gaze back to Jon.“Not yet, at least. I still have my specimen to gather. Oh, I wouldn’t bother -” Elias barely spared a glance at Martin’s aborted leap forward. “Be both know you’re barely a witch. You must have been such a disappointment.”
“Worse things to be.” Martin’s voice trembled but his footsteps were still even, still advancing.
“And now you’ve gotten yourself bound to come dirty fairy. Whatever would she think.”
“Not much, I reckon,” Martin replied, and Jon loved him, even with his voice shaking with grief and anger, “Given she’s dead.”
“Oh, but her feelings aren’t. Let me show you -” Elias clenched his fist and pulled ; voices began to fill the clearing. No, not voices - one voice. One voice amplified a thousand times over in every permutation imaginable. Some of them screamed and some of them whispered. Some of them were distorted by fever and delusion, and others were simply empty. Together they rose into a towering tempest, buffeting against Jon like physical blows.
“The thing is, Elias,” Martin’s voice came, sob-strangled and defiant, “I don’t give a shit,” and he stabbed the point of a knitting needle into Elias’s right eye.
Abruptly all sound in the clearing shut off. The screaming voices of Martin’s mother, Elias’s gloating, all of it. It had been so loud the sudden silence rang in Jon’s ear.
At least until the screaming started.
“Go!” Martin shouted, staring in grimly horrified satisfaction at the writhing form of Elias. “Quickly, go -”
“But you - “ Jon took a step towards him.
“ No , Jon,” Martin snapped. But he spared a moment to glance at Jon, and his expression softened. “Please go. I can - I’ll be alright.”
Already Elias was recovering himself; the screaming had stopped, and whatever rage was powering Elias’s magic now was formless and instinctual. He pulled the knitting needle from his eye socket and discarded it with a wet thud.
He would just have to trust that Martin really would be okay. He touched a hand to the shawl pin at his shoulder; it was faintly warm, like the gentle pressure of Martin’s thigh against his as they sat together.
Jon turned on his heel and began to run, wings fanning out behind him; easier to transform and take flight with momentum behind him, when all he needed was distance -
Behind him, Elias slashed out blindly with one bloodied hand. Whether magic or instinct or just plain luck, it didn’t matter - his fingertips curled around the edge of Jon’s cloak. All he had to do was close his hand into a fist and hold on - Jon’s momentum did the rest.
A sound like tearing sails echoed through the clearing, only drowned out by Jon’s agonised scream. Only adrenaline kept him going, lurching unsteadily to the left, unbalanced by the sudden absence of his right wing. Blood and dust spilled from the ripped, tattered edge as he ran, mixing with Elias’s mocking, gloating laughter.
“Is everyone here?”
There was a chorus of yeses from around Jon’s small, round kitchen table. Basira stood at the head, clipboard and quill in hand, tapping the shaft of the feather impatiently against her paper. The rest of them were squished in around it however they could fit; Sasha and then Martin, Jon sandwiched between his side and Daisy. Protected. With five of them around a table made for two, it was a tight squeeze.
“Good. Then we’ll begin. Jon?”
“Oh, I - yes. Daisy has agreed to move in with me for a bit, and help me find my balance again. And the salve is helping, Martin, thank you.”
Martin squeezed his hand, gently, under the table. They all turned to Sasha, who was next.
“The hazel by the village is still coppiced, but there’s a bunch of trinkets hanging in the branches. I don’t want to mess with them too much, given…” She tucked her hand more firmly against her chest, where the iron nail had burned a hole straight through her wooden palm. “The blackthorn looks promising, though.”
Next to him, Jon went tense and his fingers tightened almost painfully around Martin’s; Martin rubbed a soothing thumb over his knuckles, and gathered himself to speak. “He’s in hospital, still. No-one’s come to talk to me, so whatever he told them, I don’t think it was the truth.” His job, such as it was, was to keep an eye - hah - on Elias’s movements. An important job, and he was honoured they trusted him with it. But there was very little to report. “Whatever he’s planning, I don’t know what it is.”
“We’ll be ready for it,” Daisy replies, rumbling voice grave. “I have more teeth than he does.”
“Thank you, Martin,” Basira said, and made another note on her clipboard. “Now, there’s been reports of new will-o-the-wisp -”
“How are you getting on?”
Jon looked up from the mug of tea he was holding in both hands, and smiled at Sasha from his perch in Daisy’s lap. “Tolerable, except for the balance. I can still do magic, still transform… Can’t fly, though. It’s missing there, too.” He took a sip, and sighed. “And the drought, of course. Although -”
He pulled himself to his feet and snagged the broom handle they’d hastily repurposed into a temporary cane; Martin got up to make more tea, better to resist the urge to hover unhelpfully in case he fell. Jon came back with the shawl draped over him, shoulders several inches lower than they had been before. “S’warm. Makes it feel - more balanced.”
Martin’s hands stilled in the middle of measuring tea leaves. In the living room, conversation started up again; the sound of Jon’s quiet, precious laughter floated out to him. As though afraid to break some kind of smell, Martin finished measuring tea; boiled the kettle; brewed the tea down to the second. His hands didn’t shake when he carried the tray through, but it was a close run thing.
“Jon,” he asked, into the next lull in conversation. His fingers itched for the soft leather of his project notebook. “What happens to your clothes when you transform?”
Jon gave him an odd sort of look. “They transform with me. You’ve seen it.”
Martin nodded. “Thank you. I think I have an idea.”
That night, Martin pulled every book he owned off the shelves and stacked them next to the desk. Carefully, one by one, he went through every page, index and scrap of marginalia he could find. When he was finished, he emptied, cleaned and dried every dye pot in the house. Once completed, he pulled out every drying rack, clothes line and length of string he could find. Finally, he emptied every skein of raw wool he owned onto the newly scrubbed kitchen table.
“Right.” Martin sat and drew his project book towards him. “We have work to do.”
At a quarter to midnight, Martin closed and locked the door behind him.
Clad in his strongest boots and warmest jumper, he set off across the dew-damp grass away from his house. His oilskin rustled faintly as her walked, his backpack heavy across his shoulders. In it, he’d packed everything he thought he might need; bread, cheese, jam and water. His knitting needles, tucked into their pocket, tinked together quietly as he walked. The rest of his sewing kit hung from the strings of his apron, the wool paddles, drop spindle and a pair of spare socks completed his inventory.
He didn’t know where, exactly, the road would take him. But he knew it would take three days, and that it would start at the old hazel.
The old hazel had stood at the village boundary for as long as Martin could remember. Over the decades, the town had sprawled out in every possible direction - except this one. No matter how big the population grew or how unwieldy it’s ambitions, nobody had ever built anything closer to the tree than the witch’s house. Half the buildings in the town had hearts of wood from that old tree, and still nobody dared encroach.
Was it the tree, or the witch? To many, Martin supposed, they were the same thing. Better left well alone.
“Hello, old friend,” Martin murmured, and ran a hand along it’s bark in greeting. He sat at the base of the old tree, his back to the trunk, nestled in the twisted knoll of its roots. Someone a long, long time ago had forced the twisting branches into an arch, and although nature had begun its slow and relentless reclamation, enough of the ancient structure was visible for Martin to position himself beneath it. The straight, ordered bundles of coppice he’d managed to cultivate over the years stretched out either side of him, reaching long fingered hands towards the sky. From down here, the silver stars and low hanging moon were entirely obscured from sight.
Martin closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, the stars were much closer, and the moon was full.
Martin pulled himself to his feet, and found he was trapped, caught in the small space between the gnarled and twisted branches and the rising roots. Beyond the cage-like growths the grass swayed, blue-green and long, littered with shining specks of light and deep pools of shadow, shifting in the light of the moon. But Martin didn’t need anything from beyond the cage - there was enough fallen wood at his feet for his purposes.
First, he collected as many pieces of fallen hazel as he could - long and straight and supple, and tried not to flinch when some of them twisted under his fingers, snake or spider or rat’s tail. That was alright - he didn’t need them all, and there was enough for everything to have what they needed. Without the iron pot over his hearth and the company of his little friend, the hazel wouldn’t bend like it should - as prone to shattering as to twisting, until Martin’s fingers were worn and bloody from the effort of it, of having to stop and start again. But the crown was slowly coming together as he worked, patient and steady, speaking quiet words out into the universe - of grief, and fear, and love, telling stories.
It wasn’t a pretty thing - jagged in places, bark he couldn’t split still clinging to the twigs, none of them as even as he’d like. But it was done, and it held together in his hands, every bough held under tension, twisted together in an intricate braid. A crown of hazel twigs, from fallen wood, freely given and not taken, a powerful tool for focusing magical intent and inspiration. And it might not have been precisely magic he was doing, but - there was magic in transformation, turning one thing into another. He set it on his head, amongst his riot of curls, and gathered the hazelnuts that were scattered around the floor at his feet. Never knew when you might need such a thing, when supplies were scarce and the harvest past.
When he next opened his eyes, the dawn was approaching, purple and blue on the horizon. The stars had blinked out, and the sliver of moon had disappeared back behind the horizon. His hands were still sore and red - although what had been open cuts were now merely scratches and scars under smudges of dried blood. When he moved, something caught and tugged at his curls; he could feel a weight there, heavy over his brow, but his hand passed through empty air when he tried to adjust it.
Standing up and double checking he had all of his supplies, Martin stood and passed through the arch as the sun crawled over the horizon, dragging dawn behind it. There was work to do.
There were many useful things in a witch’s garden.
It was important to keep it well stocked and thriving. There should be room for everything, and everything in its own place, to reduce the risk of taking a trimming and accidentally brewing a laxative instead of the fever reduction you were aiming for, owing to a few overzealous dandelions cropping up where they shouldn’t.
Martin’s mother had kept an impeccable garden. Mundane and magical alike, and Martin had learned every leaf, flower, root and stem at her knee. Had learned to care for them later, on his own, with only her endless recriminations and the evidence of his mistakes, the harm he caused, as his teacher. Respected - or feared and tolerated - was the power and knowledge held in that garden, and not even the bravest of the village’s children dared to pluck a petal from any of the plants that spilled out past the cottage fence. Nobody ate nettle soup gathered from within a foot of the boundary line. And his mother had, of course, fulfilled the other end of the witch’s garden bargain - filling every available space with black-leaved, thick-thorned plants that twisted and crawled, hemlock and foxglove, holly and wolfsbane. A warning and a promise and a threat.
But there is more than one way to fill a witch’s garden, and Martin had gone home after the funeral and ripped up all of his mother’s plants, used what he could, and discarded the rest. In their place he had planted marigolds and violets and dandelion, anything that could be dried or stewed or boiled to create a dye, and filled in all the barren spots between the herbs and the medicines.
It was where he was heading now, because dyeing took time and he didn’t have much of it. In the early morning light, Martin dug up madder roots and St. John’s Wort, for the deeper reds. He carefully chipped and scraped lichen from the rough stone of his cottage, thinking quiet thoughts about warmth and safety and shelter from the rain, and how desperately he wished to sit before a hearth with Jon. He dug up onions from the vegetable patch and collected bay leaves and dandelion roots from the herb garden, for a warm golden yellow and for fixing the dyes as they simmered. And finally a cutting of woad, for the brightest and most intense of blues.
In the kitchen, he retrieved turmeric powder and tea leaves, pre-soaked heather tips, and his knife. It was something he’d done a hundred times, a thousand, this kind of work - peeling, scraping, chopping and crushing, teasing out the hues from every leaf and root. They’d have to simmer for at least an hour - more, probably, to get the brightness he needed, that Jon deserved. He’d left the biggest dye pot with Jon, still bubbling away to extract a deep purple he’d been idly wondering about gifting to Basira and Daisy. But there was room on his stove top, and over the hearth, and more than enough pots and pans.
“Iron nails, iron nails…” He must have left them around here somewhere, and he needed them if he was going to be ready by -
Something hit the back of his head and fell to the floor with a clink.
“What the - oh!” Martin stooped to retrieve the nail. A second one bounced off his shoulder and also fell to the floor, rolling under the table.
“Yes, thank you, I get the message,” Martin said, with a huff, and narrowly missed hitting his head on the table edge as he stood. A small, clawed hand at the height of a backswing, a third nail clutched tightly in its grasp, peeked out from behind the tea jars. Martin and the hobgoblin stared at each other for a few long minutes, before the clawed hand dropped the nail into the tea kettle and darted back behind the tea tins.
Martin opened the fridge and pulled out milk and honey, cut a slice of cake from the bakery and strawberries from the garden. He brewed and poured a cup of tea from the tin his little friend was sheltering behind, pouring a splash of the amber liquid into a shallow saucer. “There. Thank you for helping me find the nails.” Even though the little menace had stolen them in the first place. He’s given them back.
“I have to go away again,” Martin said, and sighed, resting one hand on his chin. “I’ll leave out more food this time, I promise.” The hobgoblin glanced at him, and Martin smiled - he was good company, his little companion, and stopped the house feeling so echoing and lonely. “Would you mind the pots for me? I shouldn’t be gone too long…”
The little creatures broke off a piece of cake and held it out towards Martin, who took it with another smile, eating the morsel while the hobgoblin licked frosting off it’s fingers.
“Enjoy,” Martin said, and stood up from the table. “I’ll be home soon.”
Martin ticked off the mental list of things he had and those he still needed.
His pattern. His yarn base. His dyes. The mundane mordants, which would bind the colour and the yarn through as many washes and rainstorms as Jon could throw at it.
But he still had one mordant to go - a magical one, this time, to fix magic to the fibers alongside colour. He set off again with his backpack, trusting in the hobgoblin and their friendship to keep the dyes from overboiling and the house from burning down. He took a left at the garden gate and set off down the main path through town - away from Jon and the forest, and towards the wide, still lake and the overhanging trees.
In the winter, the lake froze over solid, although never well enough to allow for skating. The older villagers insist they could when they were younger, that they even held dances and festivals in the deepest days of winter, but for two generations now stepping out onto the ice had promised only a slow, painful death and an endless sleep at the bottom. In spring, snow underfoot, the first snowdrops and crocus of the new year poked their heads up and left bright spots of colour against the roiling, inky black of the still-freezing waters, defiant. In summer, heat haze laying over the water, the gentle surration of the water called to the villages, coaxed them closer - until the first shock of cold stole breath from lungs and feeling from fingers, until all but the most stubborn - or most reckless, or most hopeless - retreated back to the safety of shore.
Now, in the autumn, the waters were choppy and restless, stirred up by the wind. Evening was approaching, and the sun burnished the tips of the waves in antique gold. He’d have to be quick, to get back in time. The willows, trailing their long branches into the shallows, were whispering - a gentle murmur that got stronger as Martin approached, deepened into individual voices, individual leaves moving against their neighbour. They trailed through his hair, catching against the delicate skin of his ears and eyelids, pulling at the crown still resting on his head. He caught one of the reaching hands in his - stroked gently fingertips over the dagger-like leaves, the same yellow-gold as the ripples of the lake.
“I have come to make a wish,” Martin began.
The whispering got louder, although the air was still around them. With the branch still caught in his hands, Martin began working a knot - a knot that drew in more boughs as he worked, intricate and beautiful.
“I wish,” he recited as he worked, “for a vial of your tears, for binding magic to worked wool and silk. I wish for bright colours, and for a strong and lasting enchantment, and for your longevity, willow of the lake.”
Willows don’t grow catkins in the autumn. They turn up in the spring, sometimes while the first leaves of the season are barely more than buds, and rain down over the grass and the foreshore like apples lose their blossom. But as Martin watched, catkins formed over the branches, unfurling and growing and falling all in the blink of an eye. Where each catkin had grown, a bead of liquid glistened and slid slowly down the branches, glistening in the light.
Martin caught each one in the little glass jar that usually held his heather honey; cried a little himself, and carefully pushed the waxed stopper into place once the willow had cried itself out. The jar stowed safely in his backpack, Martin began the careful work of untying the knot he’d worked into the branches, the wish fulfilled. As he did so, he recited the wish he had made and thanked the willow for it’s gift.
At the very center of the intricate knot, in the first knot Martin had tied, was a small stone. Roughly triangular, tumbled smooth by the movement of waves against the shore, it bore a single hole, through which the knot was tied. The knot came apart in his hands, and the stone dropped into his outstretched palm. Around him, the willow shivered, and gentle leaves rained down around him, like laughter.
Martin lifted the stone to his left eye and looked through the hole. Through it, the world looked blue-green again, the grasses moving despite a lack of wind and heavy fog rolling out across the lake. He caught fleeting glimpses of faces in the branches of the willow, and the occasional word.
“Thank you,” Martin said again, brushing his hands against the cascading branches like touching palms with a hundred strangers. He set the hag stone on a cord around his neck, and set off towards the highest point to collect the Threads of Dawn.
The Threads of Dawn were at the opposite corner of the village entirely.
They could be gathered from anywhere, Martin supposed, but the clearest and most vibrant of the threads were found at the summit of Hill Top Mound, the remains of an earthwork settlement that was far older than anything else in the landscape. Scattered all about with wildflower and butterfly, it remained impervious to the best efforts of the surrounding farmers to cultivate it, stubbornly resistant to even the most persistent of sheep.
The whispering of the willow followed Martin across the meadow, catching at his heels, rolling out across the grass around him, ruffling the swaying heads of late season flowers. That was the trouble with the willow, of course - they were benign, even kind, but they were terrible gossips. And who knows what will be listening on the wind.
Night crawled down the hill as Martin climbed it. From the crest of the mound Martin could see the town spread out under him like a model village. The hazel and the willows swayed in their soil, white plumes of smoke rising from every chimney, including his own. From up here, even Jon’s little clearing was visible, a stretch of empty air where canopy should be. At the three line, he thought he saw a skulking shadow; he hoped it was Daisy, keeping watch.
He turned his back on the village and looked instead out over the patchwork of fields and wilds that stretched out to hug the foot of the mountains in the distance. The lurked like great dark shadows against the horizon, hunched and waiting. The Threads of Dawn would be brightest and longest there, spun between the rising peaks as the sun crawled its way over the horizon. But there was a long, sleepless night to get through, first.
He unpacked his bag; blanket, bread, cheese, thermos of tea. He pulled his second jumper on and wound himself about with his scarf. Sat as he was at the highest point of the hill, the wind blew something fierce. Above him, the stars blinked slowly alive, winking down at him as he gazed back at their scattered patterns, like dust suspended in mid air.
Far off, in the distance, Martin heard a note. It hung in the air, clear as a bell. Another one, just like it, high and sweet.
“Hello,” said the wind.
“Hello,” Martin replied.
“It is late,” said the wind. As he spoke, the strange bluebells by Martin’s feet jostled and rang, playing more sweet song. “Don’t you want to sleep?”
“No,” said Martin, and poured himself some tea.
“Why not?” asked the wind, and it blew warm and sweet over the grasses, like a soft, thick blanket.
“I am waiting,” Martin answered, “for the Threads of Dawn, and must stay awake.”
“Oh,” said the wind, and grew warmer still. “But you must be so tired, and so comfortable, and I can collect them for you.”
“No thank you,” replied Martin, breaking off a piece of bread to eat.
“Oh, I really must insist,” replied the wind. Every flower on the hillside was playing now. Every head of bluebells was ringing their bells and the brugmansia blew their trumpets, while the snapdragons added their piping voices to the lullaby. Martin felt his eyelids grow heavy.
Just a little sleep , Martin thought. I’ll just close my eyes …
There was a sharp, sudden pain against his palm - he looked down, and found that he had put his hand down on the head of a thistle, and the sharp clawed leaves had hooked them into the skin of his palm, and that there were a few bright, lavender spines sunk into his palm. The burst of pain had roused him from the doze he had almost fallen into; around him, the wind was growing stronger, and hotter still, until the air seemed to boil and writhe around him.
“Go to sleep!” the wind howled, whipping at Martin’s clothes and the exposed skin of his hands and face, rubbing them raw. “If you won’t sleep I will make you!” It sunk its claws into him again, tried to press his eyelids closed with fingers that burned, increasing in strength and ferocity, pressing Martin backwards towards the edge of the hill.
Martin opened his mouth the refuse, but the wind snatched his voice away and tried to work its way inside. He grit his teeth against it and refused to let it choke him. The heat was intense, prickling across every inch of exposed skin and bringing sweat to his brow. Still the wind pressed at him, relentless and overwhelming. “Don’t you want to go to sleep? To rest ? All you’d have to do is take a step.”
The wind shoved - Martin felt empty air open up behind him, gaping and hungry at his back. Under his feet the earth shifted, pebbles and clinging grasses falling away down the hillside, now transfigured into a great and terrible cliff. The space between his feet and the ground far below gaped open, hungry and wanting. Only the thought of Jon’s downy wings under his fingertips, Sasha’s laughter, Daisy and Basira wrestling in the leaf litter, kept his footing secure. Whatever the wind whispered to him, cloying and tempting, he would refuse. However hard it pushed, he would push back.
Thought, most of all, about how much he loved them all.
Martin took a deep breath and said No.
He braced his feet against the crumbling edge and pushed back. Slowly, inch by inch, Martin made progress against the gale; back towards the blanket, to the center of the hill, and away from the precipice. The bluebells quietened and then went still; the trumpets blew themselves out and singing silenced. The wind slunk off, shoulders slumped, down the hill. When it reached the grasses it stomped angrily off, leaving visible trails in the swaying grasses down below. Martin sat, and caught his breath.
Over the horizon, the Threads of Dawn appeared. Gossamer thin strands of light crept their way through the distant mountain passes and out into the world, delicate and fine. Martin reached his hands out to catch them, catching the ends between his fingers and coaxing them gently forward. He wrapped them around his hand as they came, pulling the dawn inevitable onwards, until the thick ropes of golden coils fell into his lap, too brought to look at. They glittered in the warm light. Everything they touched glowed with golden life.
As the sun rose fully over the edge of the world, Martin cut and bound the ends of the threads. He stashed them, carefully, in his bag, and packed up the remains of his picnic. As he walked back down the hill, the wind didn’t so much as ruffle his hair.
After the dawn came the Spider.
Martin liked spiders. They were helpful little creatures to have about the house. Not better way to stop the carpet beetles and weevils getting into his wool stores, not to mention every other kind of creepy-crawlie that liked to take shelter from the elements in warm, dry houses. A particularly fat spider might protect an amply stocked pantry all winter long. And besides that, many of them were just fascinating - there was a small black and white spider that lived on his basil that jumped straight upwards when Martin disturbed them pulling weeds; big, black, fluffy ones that liked to lurk in the bathtub; long-limbed creeping ones that lived in the basement and the back of cupboards. And the knitter in him was awed by their webs - thick, milky-white tunnels in the corner of rooms, or the intricate cobwebs that hung between the stems of the lavender, hung all around with dew drops and frozen into glittering spirals in late spring frosts.
But the Spider -
She frightened Martin, the way he supposed most people felt about garden spiders.
Most spiders, even ambush ones, wait for prey to fall into their webs. Flying into cobwebs or walk across trigger wires or step on pressure plates - but almost all spiders were opportunist, and they were good at waiting. Not the Spider, whose webs were predatory.
And the Spider was very good at making other people hunt for her. And she was very good at weaving.
Weaving and knitting were different. Martin could weave, but not well. Both were worked with yarn, or string, or cord. Both could be done with animal or plant or synthetic fibre, both had almost endless combinations of colour and texture and weight. Both were basically a series of increasingly complex knots. But the thing about knitting was that it stretched - it had holes, spaces where the fabric gave and could be pulled apart. Martin knitted intention and spells into his knitting as he worked, whether he meant to or not - but always there was room there for the person who wore it, for their intentions to breath and to reach out. For the spell to escape through the holes and be dispelled. And knitting could be frogged - unravelled and re-skeined and used again, new spellwork pressed into the fibers, although it sometimes took a while for the impression of the first set of stitches to fall out of the wool.
Weaving, though… there was no give, there, once the pattern was complete. The threads were cut off the block, and unpicking an edge would cause the entire thing to unravel and leave the maker with a lap full of cut fibre. Once something was caught in the weave of the pattern, the only way to break free was to destroy the whole thing. Had its uses, of course, but in the hands of the Spider....
But Martin needed spider’s silk, so the Spider it was.
He felt her influence before he could see her - tendrils of sticky web under his feet, tugging at his soles. This far out it was hard to tell whether they were trying to tug him closer or push him away, but the further he walked the more firmly they twined around his body, until his whole torso was thick with milky-white strands. He didn’t bother fighting them - the tightened around his ribs every time he took a breath, squeezing his rubs tight and tighter, and struggling would only make it worse.
Besides, closer was exactly where he wanted to be.
At the center of the web sat the Spider. She was massive and human at the same time; towering over Martin in one sense, but Martin still had to look down to meet her many, faceted eyes, spinning away. They stared at each other for a few long, impossible minutes.
“Why are you here, human?”
“For some of your silk, Spider.”
“What have you brought for Mister Spider?” the Spider asked, and a shudder of revulsion rolled down Martin’s spine and the chittering sound that accompanied the words. The webs wound tighter around him as a result.
“My hands,” Martin offered, “to weave for you.”
The beast laughed. “Mister Spider doesn’t like it,” the Spider said. “He has me for that.”
“My voice,” Martin offered, next, still looking at the Spider.
“Mister Spider doesn’t like that, either,” she said, and the chittering got louder; he had to look up at her, now, her body as massive as the rest of her - distantly he could see her other arms, pulling and wrapping and weaving threads. “He has others for that.” Martin tried not to think too hard about the size of the things she was spinning into her silk.
“My heart, then,” Martin offered, and did not flinch from her gaze.
“Oh, yes. Mister Spider does like that.” Spider leaned closer, the enormous, echoing cavern of her mouth inches from Martin’s face. “I suppose we have a deal.”
Martin felt a hundred, a thousand, tiny legs run over him, surround him, clawed feet scittering over his skin and catching on his hair and his eyelashes and the corner of his nose, except for where the hazel crown sat upon his head and the hag stone against his breast. The spiders on the ground spun and spun, twisting strands of silk between them, passed the silk up Martin’s body to wrap around the spare spindles in his bag - one by one they settled them beside the Threads of Dawn, until their job was done and they scuttle back from where they came.
“And now,” said the Spider, and the threads around Martin pulled him sharply downwards, “it’s time to claim my prize.”
Martin’s knees hit the floor, and more thick white sheets appeared to wind around his legs and ankles and up his legs, securing him in place. The strings around his wrists pulled his shoulders sharply upwards and backwards, pulling him off balance and opening up his chest. Yet more of the strands tipped Martin’s chin back exposing his throat - he was suspended like that, off balance, his shoulders burning with the pressure.
The Spider reaches down with one of her many hands - abruptly many-jointed and too long, sharp. They trailed, whisper-soft, over the skin of Martin’s throat - in their wake pain screamed to life, like a roiling fire trapped just under the surface, like something was trying to push its way to the surface. One of those long fingers hooked around the cord of the hag stone and lifted it out of the way - another finger descended, and Martin felt it begin to push down into his chest cavity. He heaved and tried to gag - the Spider just laughed, and left the finger where it was, as if the feeling of Martin choking around the intrusion in his chest was intensely gratifying.
Eventually the digit pressed deeper, and speared something at the center of his chest. Immediately Martin felt a slow, creeping coldness seep through his body - through his lungs, his diaphragm, his stomach. Down into every part of him, until it tangled through his fingertips and dripped from the edge of his nose in frozen, perfect tears.
The Spider pulled back, but - she got stuck, the heart she had speared refusing to budge. Martin convulsed, a full body spasm that ripped some of the cobwebs from around his limbs. She pulled again, and the lancing pain sent warmth screaming back through Martin’s limbs.
“Impossible!” The Spider screamed, and her fingers spasmed; her fingers slashed across Martin’s chest and he screamed, blood welling up from the cuts. But the blood was warm, impossibly warm, and it dripped down onto the matted silk beneath him. Martin clenched his fingers, hard, and wrenched himself backwards, away from her grasping hands.
“How?” She demanded; above and around her, reams of webbing fell in thick, matted heaps; half-eaten bodies, their heads filled with straw or chests with lime, fell out of their wrappings and spilled across the floor. Martin staggered his way to his feet, backpack clutched tightly against his chest. “You bargained your heart! It belongs to me!”
Martin coughed, and spat a mouthful of sweet-copper blood onto the floor at her feet. “I guess,” he managed, wheezing and strained, “It wasn’t mine to give anymore.”
With a howl of rage, the Spider lunged, and flung him across the endless expanse of her realm.
When Martin awoke, he was cold.
He was cold, and he hurt. He didn’t know where he was - for a second he couldn’t even locate his body in space, unsure whether he was standing or lying or floating, whether he was right side up or face down or touching anything at all. But with every breath he re-orientated himself; the cold stinging in his lungs, and the pressure of something against his front; his hands twitched, and he felt the land underneath him give - damp, sticking soil and grass. He checks around himself; backpack, cloak, knitting needles. His head feels strangely heavy, and there is an odd stone hanging around his neck on a thick cord.
He has the sense that he could be doing something, looking for something, making something. But he cannot think what, and it is so very, very cold.
Somewhere very far off, someone was whistling.
There doesn’t seem to be any sun anywhere, although there’s enough light for Martin to see. There is a dense, low lying fog all around him, obscuring everything below Martin’s waist and anything more than a foot from his face. Beneath his shoes is wet soil, and he sinks in an inch or so when he takes a single, tentative step forward. The fog is so thick that it leaves droplets of moisture on his jumper - he can feel them slide unpleasantly down the back of his neck and the side of his face.
He really should be going -
Oh! Out in the distant, barely visible, is a light. It cuts through the fog in a long, slow sweep, like a lighthouse. Lights were good, Martin reasoned, despite the prickle of unease at the base of his neck. Probably because he couldn’t see where he was going, he thought, as he stumbled over a dip in the ground, walking towards the light. He must have been going towards the light, anyway.
The light got much closer much more rapidly now he was moving - he definitely must have made the right call. How could he have forgotten? Although now he thought about it, he couldn’t remember why he had been looking for a light in the fog, but…
Maybe he could ask the man who was holding the lantern. Yes! He must have been coming to meet this man, of course, it’s right on the tip of his tongue -
In the light of the lantern, the man was difficult to make out - more of a darker shadow against the bank of fog than anything else, but Martin could make out the sailor’s cap and great coat, a fisherman’s jumper, and a boatswain's whistle hanging around his neck. The man’s face was shadowed, obscuring the eyes, but Martin could make out the full beards and the man’s wide, wide smile.
The man inclined his head towards Martin in greeting, and then gestured outwards with his arm, and kind of after you .
Martin remembered now! Yes, of course, how silly of him, this was the Lantern Man, whose job it was to ferry lost travellers across the bogs. Was Martin a lost traveller? He must be, he supposed, and since he didn’t have any idea where he was going…
Martin followed along behind the Lantern Man. The ground was uneven underfoot, and he kept tripping, lagging behind - the Lantern Man kept getting further and further from him, the light growing dimmer, and Martin rushed to keep up. He was abruptly sure that if he got lost here, he would never be found again, but the man was always so much faster than he was, and whenever Martin called out to him - asked him to wait, to slow down - the man just plodded on, the same slow sweeping of the lantern, whistling a tune.
Martin tripped again, actually fell to his hands and knees this time, and - oh, that was odd, his hands were wet and there was an inch of standing around his nose. When he lifted his hand, slick with clinging silt, the smell of rotting vegetation rose up to meet him from the mud he disturbed, making him heave. What was - he didn’t - the Latern Man was supposed to take him around the bog, but. Oh, he must have - have fallen too far behind and gotten off track, he was always so clumsy and so stupid, what would his Mum say -
Martin frowned. His Mum… that wasn’t. That wasn’t right, was it? His Mum? He hadn’t thought about her before, what she’d think, getting soaked through like this and being out so late - and it was late, wasn’t it? He thought so, but then he could see, even with the fog. But the lantern light wouldn’t be so clear, otherwise, would it?
He looked up, distraught, and saw that the Lantern Man had paused a little ways ahead, waiting for him. Martin hauled himself to his feet, pushing his worries about his mother to the side - maybe that’s what he should be doing, getting back to her. And lying down face first in dingy water wasn’t going to help, he’d always done too much wallowing in self pity, and even if he ended up on the wrong side of the bog - well, he could find his way back tomorrow by the roads.
Except… the water was getting deeper, sloshing over his shoes and climbing steadily up his shins. The weight of the water pulled at him, and his shoes sank into the sucking mud. The edge of the Lantern Man’s greatcoat was sloshing through the water just in front of him, too, although he didn’t seem to be having the same trouble as Martin - he was always several paces ahead, moving just as quickly and easily as he always had.
As Martin watched the figure receded further into the fog, despair welling up inside him and dragging him further down, he felt something brush his cheek. When he turned his head to look, he saw that it was a moth; a bright, vibrant green - so bright it almost hurt his eyes after the gloom of the fog and the faint illumination of the lantern. It’s wings fanned out, wide, and it’s lower pair trailed a long train behind it, cutting through the heavy fog and leaving tracks through the air that were almost visible.
It reminded him of - of something, he couldn’t - he -
And oh! The light was even further away, now, and he took a few feeble, stumbling steps to catch up - and wasn’t that hopeless, trying to catch up, now, he was going to die here, so stupid -
But the moth wasn’t moving towards the light, the way Martin’s brain told him it should. It wasn’t confused, either - it headed back the way Martin had come, pausing every few feet as though waiting, floating back towards him and then away again, away from the lantern.
That can’t have been right, surely. Not -
“Wait,” Martin said, confused. “Wait!” He called out, louder, to the Lantern Man. “I think - I think I might be lost.”
The moth darted forwards, again - and alighted, just for a moment, over Martin’s heart, where the hag stone was still hanging, untouched by Martin’s stumbling and falling. He lifted the stone up, and it tingled in his hand.
When he looked up again, the Lantern Man was much closer - looming out of the fog, with the lantern shuttered and the light spilling out from behind it a sickly, poisonous red.
Martin lifted the hag stone to one eye -
The fog disappeared. In its place, darkness, with the stars twinkling above and the sliver of moon. A whispering, on the wind, like a thousand leaves moving against each other, murmuring. Through the hag stone, the lantern wasn’t a lantern at all - it was bleeding inky tendrils of pure blackness, spreading out across the landscape - Martin looked down at himself, and saw that they had wrapped themselves around his feet, his legs, his arms - thickly around his middle. Even as he stood there, they tightened - tried to make him trip, to fall over. And the man holding the lantern was not a man at all. He looked like a child’s approximation of a nightmare - a black, violent scribble over the fabric of reality, humanoid, with only a hand to hold his lure and two bright, burning white eyes.
Martin turned and ran.
He ran as hard and as far as he could, nearly tripping - those tendrils still catching at his ankles, determined to drown him. But the moth was just ahead of him, and with the hag stone he could see the light it was following, the true light - behind the horizon, still, but there.
Eventually, Martin’s footfalls went from water, to sand, to grass - he collapsed at the shore line, gasping for breath. He could remember, suddenly, in a wave of grief and shame and anger. Could remember everything - could remember Jon , who he loved. Who was waiting for him.
Exhausted, cold and aching, Martin dragged himself to his feet. The dawn of the third day was breaking, and he still had so much work to do.
The dawn light warmed Martin’s numb fingers and chased off the last of the low-lying fog still clinging to his ankles in tattered scraps.
He left the shore of the lake, and it’s deep dark waters, behind him. The sunrise spread out pink and gold and indigo in front of him, staining everything it touched in pastel light. As his clothes dried, Martin ran through the pattern he’d devised in his head - the colours he needed, in what order, the stitches and gauge… He’d lost so much time, lost in that place. He had no way of knowing how much, but he felt sure that it had been less than a day. That the dawn he was seeing must be the third dawn, the final day, for the crown still laid heavy on his brow and the willow’s tears in his pack were still fresh.
So - less time, but still some time. Enough time, he hoped, if he worked fast and diligent, ignored the ache in his hands and how exhausted he was, exhausted down to his bones.
But first - the trip home. To pick up the skeins of wool, and his best needles, his whittled needles for sewing in all those ends. His stitch markers, each one set with a little crystal or stone or charm, all his favourite ones.
And then further on, back into the forest again, past the hazel and Jon’s clearing, the distant sounds of Sasha and Daisy and Basira reaching him, carried on the wind. But his destination took him far past the warmth of the fire and the dusty smell of Jon’s bed, and further into the depths. Off the path and down the deer trails, and the not-a-deer trails, to the oldest and tallest of the rowan, growing as it was wont on a craggy outcrop of rock in the center of the forest.
Martin settled down at the base of the tree, his supplies spread out all around him. Above him, the branches of the tree were festooned with paper and ribbon and rocks, coins pressed so deeply into the bark of the tree over so many years that the trunk had grown up around them. All of them left to the spirit of art, spinning and weaving over the year, pleas for inspiration and good luck and for a lack of knots and no need for frogging.
With a deep breath, Martin picked up his knitting needles and set to walk.
Just over twenty four hours later, as the dawn of the fourth day clawed its way over the horizon, Martin finally put down his knitting needles, and finally fell asleep.
Jon’s hadn’t seen Martin in three days.
Jon was trying not to worry. Martin rarely visited every day anyway, and it wasn’t safe for Jon to approach the village. And he’d said, the last time he visited, that he had an idea and wouldn’t be by for a while. So he was probably fine, and there had been smoke rising from Martin’s cottage the whole time. And Martin had already proven himself a perfectly capable witch in his own right - the niggling anxiety and restlessness were unfounded, Jon was sure. Even though Elias was still out there, nevermind a host of other threats. It was fine. Martin was fine. Jon was wearing his forgotten hoodie because it was big enough to accommodate his remaining wind, that was all.
Still. The knock on the door, accompanied by lanolin and sunshine, was a welcome relief.
“Martin!” Jon opened the door and ushered him inside; the repurposed broom handle had a handle and a rubber grip, now. “Tea?”
“Yes, thank you, but - sit first, please?” Jon’s head jerked around at the sound of Martin’s voice, exhausted and faintly worried. He’d seemed alright, at first glance, but now that Jon looked closer… the dark smudges of exhaustion under his eyes were one thing, but the scattered cuts and bruises were worrying. And they looked well-healed, pale and shiny, as if they’d been inflicted years before.
“What’s wrong? What happened? Did Elias - “
Martin waved his questions away and gestured for Jon to sit. Reluctantly, Jon did so, eyes tracking over Martin, cataloguing every change. Nothing too major, he didn’t think, except for the way Martin was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. Martin set his backpack down on the ground - it was splattered with mud and ripped in places, like it had gotten caught in a briar. From it Martin withdrew a bundle; it shimmered in the morning light like frost on cobwebs and morning dew and a sunset over water. Jon could see strains of deep red and polished gold and the hint of bright, bright blue.
“I know it’s not the same,” Martin said, quietly, worrying the fibers between his fingers and barely looking at Jon. “It’s not really supposed to be. But I - well. You said balance was a problem, and the drought. And I thought, if your clothes transform with you…”
He unfurled the bundle and held it out towards Jon. It weighed almost nothing, shifting with the scant air current creeping in under the door. Unfolded, it was much larger than Jon had expected - big enough, in fact, to cover the right side of his back. Because Martin had recreated his missing wing, down to every scale. When Jon reached out to touch, it slipped through his fingers like silk, trembling faintly.
It took a while to fit the wing. The remaining tatters of his wings were stiff and scarred, and didn’t take too kindly to the careful stitches Martin worked along the edge to anchor the wing. It took even longer for Jon to re-acclimate to the weight distribution and build up the muscles in his back and shoulder.
And then it was just a matter of practice and careful exercise.
They chose a winter’s morning after fresh snowfall to try the wing out fully, to allow for a softer landing. The five of them gathered in the clearing in front of Jon’s home, the bright sunshine shining down on them all through frost-strung air. Martin tugged his gloves off just long enough to complete the careful row of slip stitches that tied the wing in place before the cold bit at his fingers and made them clumsy.
“How does that feel?” Martin asked, as Jon shimmered his wings; the prosthetic moved with him, fluttering in the air as Jon rolled his shoulders and tested the feedback, how it caught on the airflow.
“Good,” Jon decided, finally, and took a deep breath. “Suppose now’s as good a time as any.”
Jon took a deep breath, concentrated, and let the magic overtake him; it rolled through his body, down his spine and through his legs. A moment’s balance on the precipice, and then the magic took the knitted wing with it, leaving a large moth sitting on a patch of cleared ground. Daisy, as the tallest, bent to pick him up in a palm; he snuffled against the skin, antennae tapping against her wrist. The forest seemed to hold its breath as Daisy raised her hand into the air; all of them counted down from three as she drew back her arm, paused, and launched Jon into the air.
A long pause, two, three - and Jon’s wings shivered, and beat. Both of them, in time, and the moth’s tiny body took to the air in great looping paths. Not entirely steady, and not for long, but flight all the same.
Jon transformed in mid-air and hit the ground at a run, feet slipping over the frozen ground. He threw himself around Martin’s middle, knocking them both backwards into a snowdrift. Jon was laughing, hard, face pressed into Martin’s chest and joyful with it. “I can fly!” he shouted, through the laughter that melted into tears and back to laughter.
Martin laughed, wrapped his arms around Jon’s shoulders, and kissed him.
Somewhere in town, Elias Bouchard was working.
He was doing paperwork, in fact. No escaping paperwork when you held the kind of position Elias did, as the head of a prestigious and respected organisation. And the advantage of paperwork, of course, was that it had to be done in his office. And in his office was where Elias kept his collection.
He was particularly proud, of course, of his latest addition. In a large box frame, backed with cork, was the fey wing. Elias had had it preserved and mounted professionally, to keep for prosperity. A full specimen would have been preferable, of course, but Elias supposed there wasn’t quite room on his wall for that. Perhaps this was better, and he could dedicate more resources into capturing the creature. And neutralising that infuriating witch, of course…
Elias shook his head, and returned to his paperwork. The financial records wouldn’t sign themselves…
It really was a beautiful thing. Even with the ragged edge, the colour was exquisite, and not quite like anything else in nature. Not to mention those eyes…
Elias roused himself. Outside, the sky was growing dark. On the mantelpiece, the clock struck eight. He was so tired, his limbs weighed down and lethargic. He should - he should go home…
Elias felt his gaze drawn back to the Eye. It seemed to be looking at him, really looking at him, a blue so vivid it seemed alive. Elias could almost swear is blinked…
Elias pushed back from his desk and approached the frame. It really was difficult to look away. Almost… enthralling. Just a little closer… Just
When the caretaker opened the office door the next morning, it was empty. The only thing amiss was a small pile of dust on the rug.